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.

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The Emperor’s new clothes

So, the first priority for the Emperor is to get himself some new clothes. His suit is no longer a la mode; folk point to him in the street and whisper. Some even openly guffaw. The old clothes have to go, but what to replace it with?

Fortunately, the Emperor has employed a tailor of some renown and expertise.  Though there are many who doubt his talents, and in fact question whether he has any at all, the tailor is perceived in most quarters, as being one of the best there is.  What he appears particularly to be good at is invisible mending, a skill which is indubitably going to be required in looking after the Emperor’s attire.

The tailor shows the Emperor some fine cloth options but the Emperor is not happy. To cut, shape, fit and sew an outfit from scratch?  That would take too long and there’s a big event in May for which the Emperor needs to be properly booted and suited.

Instead, he spies some items hanging at the back of the tailor’s shop, waiting for collection. “What about those”, he asks.  “Ah”, says the tailor, “they’re orders for other people. I can see why you like them. They’ve been skilfully made, beautifully cut, expertly sewn. Because these people took time to choose, to research the right clothes before deciding on what to wear.  Also, they picked styles that suit their personality. Perhaps, Emperor, you should do the same?”

But the Emperor had no idea what might suit him. He had a few suits hanging in the wardrobe but wasn’t sure they fitted anymore. They just didn’t seem the right thing to be wearing.

Then the Emperor spotted something vibrant hanging on its own. “Bring me that”, he instructed the tailor. The tailor began to protest: “But that is for quite a different customer, one with a real sense of their own style, who knows what they like and what they should be wearing. I really don’t think…”

No matter. The Emperor insisted the clothes be brought to him.  He tried them on and posed in front of the mirror.  So it was a bit tight across the chest and a bit baggy on the bum. Nor was he sure that purple suited him – even if he was the Emperor – but he liked it and liked how it looked.  He felt good in it.

The tailor rolled his eyes. “Really, Emperor? I really do think you should at least think about wearing a colour that suits you, that you can call your own.”  “Nonsense,” replied the Emperor, “Let out the seams here, tighten the fit here and I’ll take it.”

And so, the Emperor stepped out onto the stage for his first public engagement and the crowd gasped. The women in particular were astonished. “That’s our clothes he’s wearing,” they muttered. “What made him think he could just take our clothes and not tell anyone where they come from?” asked one. “That’s the new Emperor for you,” added another, “Doesn’t care whose clothes he’s in, he only cares that he’s wearing something, anything to dazzle the crowds.”

“Ah well,” the women agreed, “He’ll get found out soon enough.”

And guess what? He did.

– JIM MURPHY, IF YOU WANT TO WEAR WOMEN FOR INDEPENDENCE’S CLOTHES, AT LEAST HAVE THE GRACE TO TELL EVERYONE WHERE YOU GOT THEM FROM.

IF WE THOUGHT WE NEEDED OR WANTED YOUR HELP WITH OUR WOMEN’S PRISON CAMPAIGN, WE’D ASK YOU. THANK YOU .

Shut up? Not until they put up

You can imagine the shock for a valley girl – comprehensively educated, well travelled, reasonably cultured but essentially the product of a rural upbringing – arriving at St Andrew’s University. In my first 1st year French tutorial, I recall vividly how one doyenne from Dollar Academy made me feel. Tossing her waist length hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, throwing her arms open to emphasise her point, pronouncing confidently on the meaning of the text, the importance of the characters, spending much of the hour talking in French. I shrank visibly and barely said a word.

By the third week, I’d worked out she hadn’t read the novel, her pronunciation was dodgy and she was basically talking shite.

But what she and all the others of her ilk did – and they were aplenty in St Andrews – was exude power.  They lived, talked, socialised and worked (occasionally a few deigned to do so) with a sense of entitlement, with the kind of confidence only money and status can buy.

The reaction by some to the Smith Commission report has rekindled these memories – or more particularly, the attempts to shut us up in its aftermath, have

The outcome of the Smith Commission was inevitable right from its construct. The Unionist parties started from various points on a low bar, while the SNP and Greens were already at ceiling height. That the parties round the table were brought to the middle is testament not just to Robert Smith’s acumen in chairing the process but also in the willingness of the parties and the individuals around that table to reach agreement. The SNP entered those talks knowing it would not get what it wanted which was near as damnit independence and knew that the outcome would be far from what it wanted to achieve. The point of staying the course was to make the case for as much devo as could be agreed, to pull and in some cases, drag the others up the scale.

Its case was aided and supported by large sections of Scottish civic society. Trade unions, anti-poverty campaign groups, disability campaigners, voluntary organisations working with a wide range of community interests.  All those whose work brings them into contact with the impacts of poverty and inequality were quite clear that Scotland needed most or even all revenue-raising and welfare powers. They were listened to much less than the ones who advocated large chunks of it all staying the same.  In short, can’t beat can.

Partly this is to do with where power and resources currently lie. When you are a government department, an official of some years’ experience, with data and information available to you to produce as evidence, it is easy to construct an argument. When you are a campaign group run on people’s donations and grants, with limited access to the resources of power, it is harder to make your case.

Moreover, those who argued for fewer powers to transfer to Scotland have a vested interest in things staying as they are. All that upheaval, all that change, all those known unknowns, as well as the unknown ones, the surprises that would spring, the unintended consequences – you can almost feel some officials and some of those who do very nicely out of the current set-up – shuddering at the thought of it all.

And it is always – as we saw during the referendum campaign – much harder to make a convincing case for change when effectively what is being asked for is a leap into the unknown. You can only surmise and at best, model the results. Moreover, while advocates of much more devo were arguing for powers for a purpose, sometimes the purpose differed.  And even when people were clear what their purpose was – to tackle poverty, reduce inequality – what they were effectively arguing for was potential: the political will to use those powers for an as yet unclear purpose is not a given.

And underneath it all is the ability to make the case for can’t with confidence, the sort of confidence power brings and so, the can’t brigade won the day. What has been delivered – or at least promoted, as we’re far from delivery yet – is more than those who voted yes might have believed would result, but less than it could have, and less than a majority of people in Scotland aspire to.  A small matter of democratic accountability which appears to have been brushed aside.

So now it’s time for you all to shut up. You’ll have had your tea.

John Swinney was thoroughly gracious in his remarks about the report. The SNP welcomes the powers but we’re disappointed that civic Scotland wasn’t listened to and that the powers they propose do not meet our aspirations.  Moaner, whinger, was the retort.

It didn’t take long for them to round on Nicola Sturgeon.  When will she ever stop?  (we are a right wing commentator away from “nagging” or “nippy” being introduced into the lexicon about our new First Minister.)

According to Gordon Brown, our de facto opposition leader even though he didn’t have the inclination to actually get himself elected to the role, it’s time to stop arguing for more powers and to work with what we’ve got.  Eat your cereal, Scotland.

Yet, there is some point to what he says. We must focus some energy on working out what to do with the powers we’ve got, how to use them to their greatest effect. We’ve got the political equivalent of a chicken carcass, can we deliver 2 meals and a pot of stock out of its meagre offerings?

The Scottish Government has shown to good effect what can be done: stamp duty is now land transaction tax and aims to extract more revenue from those who can afford it most.  But it also abdicated any attempt to reform council tax benefit when it was devolved, opting even to keep the administration of it the same, when having 32 local authorities run the same system slightly differently 32 times to apply the benefit is clearly not the most cost-efficient way of doing things.

But as always, this is about power and control. Having succeeded in repelling attempts to effect a complete transfer of power and achieved further success at guarding against real powers shifting from their current locus, now is the time to close down the conversation. This is the establishment doing what it always does best and holding on to what it thinks is rightly its own. Include in that, establishment politicians, establishment business and their well-heeled representative bodies and establishment government departments and officials (however well intentioned they were when they entered the civil service).

So now the establishment thinks it has got away with it again. Except it hasn’t.

Already, others are finding their voice. The devolution of air passenger duty has resulted in calls from North East and West England MPs for measures to support their airports. And there are some also calling for attention to turn now to these regions’ – and others’ – needs for greater control over resources and revenues. The failure to devolve corporation tax to Scotland is far from a done deal when power over the same tax is headed to Northern Ireland. The establishment’s edifice is crumbling and Scotland’s constitutional debate has not just resulted in a political awakening here, but it has encouraged others to be bolder, to ask for more.  As it always had the potential to do and so, it should be.

At all levels of consciousness, this debate is about power, where it lies, who wields it, how it is used and for whose benefit.  And it’s why those who currently have it threw everything they had into the No campaign to make sure they held on to it.  They sense though that their victory could be hollow: Scotland has not retreated to lick its wounds and forget any notion it might have had about taking greater control and responsibility for itself.  We’re still up for it. So now we’re being telt.

But just as I found in those French tutorials many years ago, once you’ve got the measure of them, once you’ve worked out they are all empty confidence, with very little substance behind them, there is no need to cede the ground to them.

Scotland has started to find the establishment out. We’re beginning to understand what this is all about.  Power and control. They have it, we want it.  We have found our political voice.

And they can tell us all they like to shut up but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not until they put up.

k