Scottish ministers ban police from searching children for alcohol
Scottish ministers have banned police from stopping and searching children for alcohol without legal cause after they found little evidence to support its use.
To the irritation of some rank and file officers, Michael Matheson, the Scottish justice secretary, said the government would instead focus on introducing a new statutory code of practice to cover searches of adults next year.
We know stop and search can be a valuable tool on combating crime, but it is important that we get the balance right between protecting the public and the rights of individuals, Matheson said.
Scottish police will still have the legal power to require an underage child to hand over alcohol if they can see it on them but, after this new bar on non-statutory searches, would need to arrest them if they refuse to hand it over.
The decision follows lengthy reviews into the once heavy use of non-statutory stop and searches in Scotland including children younger than 10, which became particularly widespread in Strathclyde under the then chief constable Sir Stephen House.
Unlike in England and Wales, where the practice is heavily regulated, Scottish police were repeatedly using common law powers for consensual searches of children without oversight and legal cause. At its peak, Scotlands overall stop and search rate was four times higher than in England and Wales.
A study by academic researcher Kath Murray, with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, found under-14s were searched 26,000 times in 2010 without the specific statutory power to do so. That included 500 searches of children under-10s. In Strathclyde, there were more recorded searches of 16-year-olds than the number of people that age living in the force area, at a rate of 1,406 searches per 1,000 people.
The police and the then justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, insisted that non-statutory stop and searches were an essential weapon in the wider strategy of combating underage drinking and antisocial behaviour. Few children objected and many adults supported it, they said.
In 2015, the UN human rights committee said the practice was allegedly unlawful and disproportionate and should be scrapped. But an expert panel set up by Scottish ministers to review all stop and search policies could not agree on whether to do so or not, leading to the latest review.
However, the Scottish governments review, published on Friday, found that after stricter oversight was introduced in the summer of 2015, there were still few successful discoveries of alcohol on children.
Of 1,629 consensual searches of children, only 158 or less than one search in 10 found alcohol. For searches involving adults aged 18 or over, the figure reached 16.3%. There were far more cases 2,551 in total where children voluntarily handed over alcohol without being searched.
Matheson said the question of non-statutory search powers of children would be revisited 12 months after a new code of conduct comes into force next year, to see if there was clear evidence the power was needed.
Murray said this was a measured and welcome decision by ministers. Any increase in the powers of the police should be evidence based, and as the Scottish government and Police Scotland have acknowledged, there is currently insufficient evidence to support such a move.
The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, would not comment directly on the governments decision. Calum Steele, its general secretary, tweeted:
Calum Steele (@CalumSteeleSPF)@severincarrell no – we have commented on this to death. Everyone is an expert except for those who deal with it apparently
November 4, 2016