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.

How would you build a nation?

If you had the chance, how would you build a nation? What qualities would you want your people and communities to have?

Courage, certainly. To decide in a split second that the right response, the human response to extreme adversity is to turn and face it, not run from it. Just as Jim Murphy MP did when he found himself passing the Clutha bar in Glasgow just as a terrible incident occurred. He could have stayed in his car, called 999 and waited for help to arrive. Instead, he and others, acted to save others, walking into an unknown situation, compelled to do so by some unbidden sense of duty and willing to set aside notions of risk in order to help people in need.

Also, prescience of mind. The ability to make a judgement call and make the right one. Thus, it was not enough for Edward Waltham to simply bless his luck at staying in a neighbouring bar to finish his pint, thereby not being in the Clutha when the police helicopter fell from the sky to land on the pub. He could have stayed away; instead, he put into action his years of training as a firefighter and helped lead the volunteer recovery effort. A human chain was formed to pass injured customers out of the bar to safety: it sounds like the kind of thing a retired firefighter might think to organise.

You’d want your people to be calm and collected in tough situations. Like Wesley Shearer who was one of the first to bring the incident to everyone’s attention, sharing his eyewitness account, posting a photo on twitter which alerted the world’s media to an extraordinary, unfolding situation. He shrugged off suggestions that he should expect media outlets to pay to use his image – there is no doubt that they should and he shouldn’t have to ask. But more than that, he was clear-headed enough to ensure that all who knew him, his mum and their friends knew they were safe. And all from a man aged only 21.

Loyalty would feature highly. In perhaps one of the most heartrending stories to emerge overnight, John McGarrigle was the man who mounted a faithful vigil at the edge of the cordon, staying put all night, poorly dressed for the elements but refusing to go home until he knew what happened to his dad. As he told one of the many reporters gathered alongside him, he’s my dad, where else would I be but here. Sadly, so, so sadly, it does not seem as though he will be rewarded with a happy reunion.

The ability to act quickly would be needed. The speed at which the emergency services responded was astonishing. The way the long rehearsed planning for a major incident kicked into action was impressive. There is no doubt this, coupled with the quick thinking of customers and bystanders, helped to save lives. Add to this mix a dogged determination to give just a little bit more, to stay the course until no more can be done and you have police, fire and rescue, and ambulance services to be very proud of.

You’d want the people employed in such services to have a deep and abiding sense of responsibility. People like Frank McKeown, not just a firefighter but also a part-time footballer with Stranraer FC. He was on shift at the tragic scene all night until 8am and then headed to Clyde to captain his side in a Scottish Cup tie. No one would have minded had he chosen to go home and recover after such an experience, but his sense of duty to both his vocations meant it probably didn’t even cross his mind to ask.

And you’d definitely seek stoicism. Bad enough that police officers were involved in a search and rescue mission for innocent civilians, but they were also searching, hoping to save though it was to be in vain, their colleagues in the helicopter. Then, there’s the health professionals, some of whom no doubt showed up at their hospitals as soon as they heard the news, not bothering to wait to be called out. As the rescue and recovery missions wind down, their work will continue largely unseen, to mend the physical, emotional and mental breaks in the survivors.

Solidarity would be key. Thus, not just a city in mourning but a country. And more besides, with police forces all over the UK and even, the world sending condolences to Police Scotland on the loss of three colleagues. Football matches holding impeccably observed minutes of silence across Scotland. The Holiday Inn Express across the road from the Clutha opening its doors as an emergency reception centre for survivors and also providing those working through the night with refreshments and somewhere to rest. Businesses too arriving unbidden with supplies today. Even politicians setting aside rivalries to unite in leading a city in condolence.

You’d want your nation to be imbued with a sense of the right thing to do. Not just all those incredible customers and bystanders who gave not a thought to their own safety to help others, but for others to engage in small acts of thoughtfulness too. Such as the STUC which at the earliest opportunity called off its annual St. Andrew’s Day anti-racism march in Glasgow as a mark of respect to all those affected by the tragedy, but also because the emergency services were already operating at full stretch. You’d want adversity to make comrades of us all and so it has proved.

But you’d also want resilience, a capacity in your people and their communities to get on with getting on. For time not to stand still but for people to pick up the pieces by carrying on with ordinary, everyday tasks, all the while mindful of the sorrow of others and thinking of how to respect their bereavement and grief.

We can and should after all, only gawp for so long. Those directly affected by such a tragedy need the support and resources that can only be generated by strong communities, which reach out with love and care when needed, but also provide for the practical necessities. We might all be sharing in stunned, terrible surprise right now but what bereaved families who have lost livelihoods as well as loved ones also need is material assistance to help them get through the dark months ahead. Strong communities with resilient, compassionate individuals know that and know how, when and where to show small kindnesses and also, to dig deep.

And you’d want your nation to know how to have a good time. Fun is a necessary part of all our psyches and finding moments of joy a key part of recovery. It would be compounding a tragedy if the young, energetic ska band playing in the Clutha felt they could not carry on. If the owner of the bar couldn’t recover and continue to provide a much valued service. If the Clutha itself, so long an institution on the banks of the Clyde and the birthplace of many romances, friendships and successful music careers, could not – in time – rise from these black ashes.

All these qualities and more you’d want in your nation. You’d want your people to realise how fleeting life is, how the most terrible of circumstances can snatch it away. And to realise what really matters in life and to redouble our efforts and energies to find it and rejoice in it. Black, white, gay, straight, Protestant, Catholic, Yes, No and everything in between. When adversity strikes, ultimately we are one and the same. Human beings first and foremost, members of the family of Scotland.

On this, the darkest of national days, we can share solace in knowing that our people, Glasgow’s and Scotland’s, have all these qualities in spades. We are a nation to be proud of, indeed.

The odd relationship between less and more

Even I have to admit that the burdz mind is a scary place.  There is a constant swirl of questions on policy matters to which I, and no one else, seem to have the answer.

Scottish Labour reckons 13,500 jobs will be lost under this year’s local government settlement.  Is this necessarily by itself, a bad thing?  If the work these people used to do is no longer there, why should they continue to be employed to do nothing?  Of course, the removal of that work is what might well be the bad thing but is that necessarily so?

Take police funding, numbers and crime levels. Generally, police funding has been protected in this round of budgeting, largely due to it being ring-fenced and therefore, allocated separately by the Scottish Government.  Where police forces have identified shortfalls between government grant and their spending need – often, it is claimed, to keep services and police numbers at previous levels – local authorities will top up out of their funding allocations, taking money away from other services in the process.

But why is no one challenging the assumption that the police needs this money more than other areas?  Crime levels are down generally, although there are stubborn and worrying upward trends in violent crime.  Even the fear of crime is decreasing.  The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, regularly trumpets the Scottish Government’s success in this area.  So why do we continue to need more police, or at least, the same number of police as before?  Or is it – as is asserted – that the high number of police officers has resulted in those crime figures dropping?

There is an unhelpful trend in policy circles, now that the Scottish Government has committed itself to shifting expenditure away from just in time (or after the fact) intervention to acting early and therefore, preventing problems happening further down the line.  This approach clearly has implications for current services and fiefdoms with services and areas of expenditure at the wrong end of the spectrum at risk.  So everyone is now making a claim for what they do as amounting to preventative spending.  The police is no exception.  Investing in high numbers of police officers is preventative because it is resulting in fewer crimes – see?  Look at the figures, there is the evidence.

But in truth, that is spending at the wrong end of the spectrum.  That is waiting for problems to arise, for the circumstances which allow crime to flourish to continue unchecked and unaddressed, sitting back and watching the children who get themselves into “bother” at an early age graduate as full-blown potential adult criminals.  Surely, if we are serious about preventing things, the money currently spent on expensive police officers should be being spent on much cheaper health visitors, family support workers, nursery and classroom assistants, play workers and therapists who can stop the chain of supply, or at least try to.

Yet, these are the kinds of things being cut from many council and health board budgets.  Sarah Boyack was right to point out that women workers, in particular, are most likely to be worst affected by jobs going.  So here’s another question – why is it that women’s work and jobs are expendable when cuts have to be made, when men’s are not?

More questions, this time on health.  Why are health boards overspending despite having their funding protected?  The increasing cost of drugs is not a good enough answer, frankly.  Aren’t there cheaper ones available?  If not, why not?  And why are we continuing to spend so much on drugs in any event?  Significant progress is being made on tackling some of Scotland’s biggest health ills – cancer, heart disease and stroke.  So why then is having fewer nurses and doctors – as Labour is wont to decry – by itself a bad thing?

Surely, if we are all healthier and our wellbeing is improved, we need fewer health professionals to treat us?  Or is it because we have huge numbers of health professionals that we are all getting better?  But, of course, we are not all getting better.  In many deprived areas, the outcomes in terms of wellbeing and life expectancy are woeful.  Are we diverting resources into these areas – in serious amounts – to try and fix these problems, to address the huge inequalities that exist?  Are better off areas getting significantly less to spend as a result?  Of course not.

Yet, some of those areas with better health outcomes are highly rural.  Providing any level of healthcare costs more because of rurality and the lack of economy of scale in provision.  It is much cheaper to provide key services in high population areas than in low ones, where higher numbers of people can be provided for.  Have we managed to resolve this conundrum yet, beyond the time-honoured swing back and forth between centralisation and specialism, and localities and generalism?

This dichotomy exists all over the public sector.  There are fewer children, so why do we need more teachers, unless it is to invest in smaller class sizes, something most councils paid lip service to in the years of plenty and have now largely given up on, now times are lean.  Is the spend per pupil the same in well-off areas as in poorer ones?  Is universalism the right approach anymore if 20% of children are still being left behind, despite record levels of investment in education over the last thirteen years?

Local authority housing has, for many years, provided one of the best/worst examples of illogicality in expenditure.  Look at most housing revenue accounts over the last ten years and you will find a pattern of falling numbers of houses, reduced or at best, largely static maintenance budgets but increased spending on staffing and especially, management activity.  And rising rents to pay for it all.  The result?  Tenants paying more for less.

Admittedly, this was much more heightened when right to buy was at its peak, but the point is the mindset.  It is prevalent and redolent everywhere in the public sector.  Short term decisions are made, largely to preserve vested and self-interest, when what we need is strategic policy-making at all levels of government which applies resources, methodically and evidentially, to where and how they might be needed most and will have the greatest effect.  We’ve been promised shifts in the planning, design and delivery of services for years, yet now the chips are down, we’re getting the same old, panic driven, slash and burn approach to making cuts.  Yet, by and large, there is still “more” right across the public sector, even when it is required to tackle “less”.  Worst of all, is when there is “more” but “less” to show for it.

I told you my mind was a scary place, but one final question.  Isn’t it scarier still that key influencers and policymakers – politicians especially – aren’t asking questions like these and applying themselves to finding or working out the answers?