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.

King Kenny prepares to raid across the border

There were two show-stopping speeches in the great NATO debate at SNP conference.

First, Sandra White MSP shone as the doughty, wee wumman of SNP politics.  And anyone who mistakes that for a backhanded compliment knows neither me nor her very well.  Sandra is actually one of the most important MSPs in the SNP group, for she has stuck by her principles through thick and thin, rarely wavered from the left-leaning path her early political experiences mapped out for her and articulates what she believes in a language which speaks to the ordinary punter.

Until Sandra spoke, the debate was in danger of collapsing under its own weight.  The rawness of Jean Urquhart’s pain on it all nearly had me in tears, while John Swinney’s appeal to our rational selves was just as heartfelt in a different way.  And then came Sandra, whose opening remark – that she wishes she was 12 so she’d get a stool to stand on – burst the tension.

Yet, what she said and how she said it was vitally important to the debate.  Not for her the high-faluting jollying of speaking to this important yin and thon yin, she speaks with the grassroots of the party – and was rewarded with the loudest cheer of the day for that rejoinder.  As for the 70% in the much misrepresented and still largely under wraps YouGov poll? Well, they couldn’t have included any voters she knew, because on the doorsteps she visits, the SNP’s policy on NATO nor NATO itself are not issues she encounters.  More cheers.

For all that Sandra garnered the loudest cheers, the day really belonged to Kenny MacAskill.  In truth, the argument was drifting from the pro-camp until he got up to speak.  He got a standing ovation at the end – not just from those supporting his arguments – and it was utterly deserved.

What we got was vintage Kenny.  Abandoning the tight constraints of the media training which has attempted to take the preacher out of the man for broadcast interviews, this was an impassioned sermon.   It certainly came as a surprise to those who have come to know him as a government Minister, for this was a version of Kenny MacAskill kept under wraps for some years.  And like Sandra, what he had to say mattered just as much as how he said it.  Indeed, his opening joke – that I’m no poster boy for NATO and the USA – gave him a moral authority on the pro-side which others failed to articulate.

His contribution epitomised the agonies experienced by many delegates, who, like him, had come into the SNP as anti-nuclear anti-establishment agitators.  He has marched with and indeed, led direct action protests – to ban the bomb and drum the poll tax out of town.  But, he reminded conference, it was all about the prize of independence and to come this far, in his view, to not jettison unhelpful ballast and so, threaten achieving the glittering prize, would be unforgiveable.  Identifying with all the delegates in the hall, he was tired of marching and protesting and now just wants to get there.

This crescendo finish gave him his standing ovation, tapping into a shared weariness of a journey long travelled by so many in such spectacular fashion.  It was a speech which made your backbone shiver and your hair stand on end.  And anyone thinking that any leadership contest after the First Minister hangs up his crown is a shoo-in for Nicola Sturgeon might want to think again.

Capitalising on his success at conference, tomorrow he takes to a bigger stage, with a raiding mission across the border.  Invited to make the opening address at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) conference in England and Wales, he will make a stark contrast with their own Home Secretary, Theresa May.  Remember all that talk from Alex Salmond about Scotland being a progressive beacon for the rest of the UK?  Well, this is it in action.

No doubt Kenny the preacher man will be put back in the box, but he will still barn storm, contrasting his approach and that of the Scottish Government’s to policing with the UK Government’s. In short, he will work it right up them.

In Scotland, the police service will not be privatised, we will safeguard officer numbers, we will not implement the Windsor package (savage changes to police terms and conditions) north of the border and we will protect this vital service from Westminster cuts.

He will extend an important hand of friendship too:  “And as Scotland looks to the future we are clear that the friendship, support and solidarity between officers across these isles, will remain.”  But he will point up that with the move to a single police force in Scotland, creating the UK’s second biggest single police force, means the rules of engagement have changed.  A new relationship is required, one of a partnership of equals, paving the way for the Scottish police to demand parity of esteem with its counterparts elsewhere.

This matters, not least because it continues to forge good relations with a vital set of vested interests as we move towards the yes vote.  Kenny MacAskill’s eyes are not just firmly on the prize in party circles, but in how he has handled all aspects of his justice brief.  And suddenly, having spent years trying to work out the riddle that is the complex personality of one of the SNP’s leading lights, I’m starting to get it – and him – a little better now.

The boys in blue were out in force (sorry) at the SNP Conference.  And while there have always been a healthy number of former polis in the party’s ranks (sorry again) – my ain pater being one such – this is different.  For many years, there was an unhealthy suspicion among the rank and file of serving officers in particular, of what the SNP was about: no longer.  This statement on the Justice Secretary’s riever mission from Scottish Police Federation General Secretary, Calum Steele, shows how far the gap has closed in recent times:

We are not surprised that Kenny MacAskill has been invited to address the ACPO conference.  The police service in England and Wales looks jealously at the service north of the border and sees that there is an alternative approach which could help deliver a world class police service against a background of shrinking budgets.  They see that you don’t have to demoralise and decimate the police to save money.  The police service in whatever country in the UK is never shy of seeking to import success from elsewhere and this invitation can only serve as an endorsement and recognition of the successful policing model which is being developed in Scotland.

After a bravura performance which saved the day in the great NATO debate and without any doubt, a headline grabbing opportunity to come tomorrow, Kenny MacAskill is currently king of all he surveys.  He might not yet be a potential prime leadership contender, but he is definitely back in the hunt.