Ministers launch stop search review after critical report

Written by Alan Robertson on 31 March 2015 in News

Scottish Liberal Democrats call for Sir Stephen House to be recalled to parliament

Ministers have launched an independent review on whether consensual stop and search should be scrapped in Scotland after a damning report.

The Scottish Government has confirmed a new independent advisory group, chaired by solicitor advocate John Scott QC, will consider the use of stop and search powers in Scotland.

Earlier, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) declared it has no confidence in the stop and search data presented by Police Scotland, as reported here.

Inspectors found there was no definitive guidance for officers and as such no common view among the rank-and-file of what should be recorded as a stop and search.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have demanded that Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House be recalled to parliament to answer further questions from MSPs on stop and search following the HMICS review.

“I am tired of playing cat and mouse with Police Scotland bosses over the use of stop and search. It is high time we were given clear cut answers to our questions,” said Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie.

Police Scotland has announced its intention to place a presumption in favour of statutory stop and search over consensual use of the tactic in line with an HMICS' recommendation.

However, the advisory group which has been established will make recommendations to ministers on whether this goes far enough or if consensual stop and search should be scrapped altogether.

Members, who will make recommendations to government by August to allow for any legislative changes that might be required, have also been tasked with developing a draft Code of Practice to underpin the use of stop and search.

The group’s remit will allow it to advise on whether this Code of Practice, which would seek to regulate the conduct of any stop search carried out, should have a legislative basis.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson said the Scottish Government would “not hesitate” to bring forward proposals as part of the delayed Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill should legislative changes be required.

He said: “Stop and search can be a valuable tool in combating crime – but we must get the balance right between protecting the public and the rights of the individual.

“As such, it is vital that stop and search powers are used appropriately, and we need to make some key decisions on how such powers should be used going forward. We need a clear, consistent approach which, as a society, we can all be agreed upon.”

Chair of the advisory group, John Scott QC, who is also chairman of Howard League Scotland, said “considerable uncertainty and confusion” exists among the public and even police officers as to when stop search is justified.

“This is an area in which it is important to strike a balance between, on the one hand, allowing the police to continue to address crime in all its aspects, including prevention and deterrence, and, on the other, the right of the public, including our young people, to go about their daily lives untroubled by unjustified police activity. Striking a proper balance is not possible while confusion continues.”

In a separate report to the Cabinet Secretary, Police Scotland confirmed its intention to enforce an HMICS recommendation to remove its 20 per cent target for the proportion of stop and searches classed positive.

“This is intended to assist in the removal of any perception amongst frontline officers that there is a desire for them to achieve high volume stop and search results rather than a clearly defined outcome, for each specific stop and search, which keeps people safe,” their report says.

However, police appeared lukewarm on the notion of a code of practice underpinned in legislation and underlined the need for “appropriate consultation, legal and policy consideration” due to the complexities involved.

Their report flags up guidance on police use of stop and search as an alternative worthy of consideration, providing a “transparent and accessible statement as to how Police Scotland would expect its officers to conduct stop and search and clear information to the public as to their rights”.

Deputy chief constable Rose Fitzpatrick, who chaired a short life working group set up by Police Scotland last month to look at consensual stop and search, said it is clear any decision on its future use “should be taken once Police Scotland has implemented a series of improvements”.  

“This includes the recording and reporting mechanisms for stop and search data, greater guidance on its use – both internally and to the public, and any training needs going forward,” she added.

“This work, alongside additional academic research and any wider consultation and engagement that may be needed, will provide the strongest foundations on which to build any future changes.”

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