SCOTLAND's chief constable has called for a "non-partisan debate" on how to replace non-statutory stop-and-search.

 

Sir Stephen House said the age-old practice should be replaced by a new consensus on the issue that balances both public safety and public rights.

Loading article content

His remarks came after the body that represents rank-and-file officers, the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), accused him of driving up the numbers of stop-searches - and jeopardising the tactic as a result.

After months of controversy, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that non-statutory searches would be ended.

The SPF's general secretary, Calum Steele, responded that Sir Stephen's force should share the blame for public hostility to stop-searches because of a targets culture. The force has always denied targets.

Striking a conciliatory tone, Sir Stephen responded: "The Federation rightly highlights the importance this practice has had up to now in the prevention of crime and violence in Scotland's communities.

'However, Scotland needs a consensus on stop and search as we go forward. "As I indicated last week, we need to consider a range of measures that could replace the current policing tactic of consensual stop and search.

"In doing so we need to be able to balance society's expectations with powers which ensure that the public can continue to be properly protected."

Sir Stephen stressed the decision to stop such searches - announced by Ms Sturgeon at First Minister's Questions - was made by the force following pilot work in Fife.

He added: "That decision to review measures to replace the consensual element of stop and search was taken against a backdrop of a record drop in crime, including violent crime, across Scotland; Police Scotland's clear commitment to use police powers proportionately; and the use of a broader range of stop and search measures piloted in Fife."

Stop-searches peaked in the year before Police Scotland thanks to enormous numbers in the old Strathclyde force. However, they rose dramatically in some parts of the country where they had previously been used more sparingly.

Sir Stephen said: "There was also recognition that there are regional differences in the proportions of legislative and consensual stop and search across Scotland.

"Such variations illustrate the evidence-led nature of the use of the tactic, rather than any perceived artificial volume targets, which Police Scotland has never operated.

"'We now need to consult with our partners in the Scottish Police Authority and HM Inspector of Constabulary, our staff associations and key stakeholders who have an interest and contribution to make, as we look to ensure the balance is right between keeping people safe, especially our young and vulnerable people, and the rights of the individual in a Scotland that is based on both equality and safety.

"The debate we will have needs to be open, non-partisan and recognise the benefits of having a system that is backed by people across Scotland and supported by appropriate policing and, where necessary, by legislation."

The SPF had also attacked MSPs for "ignorance" on stop-and-search legislation and warned of political interference.

Mr Steele, in an open letter to MSPs, said: "The events of the past week have resulted in a frightening narrative that politicians believe that they have a role to play in determining how and when police officers exercise their right to stop and search someone.

He added: "It is also alarming to read and hear reports that politicians consider that they are in a position to reach an agreement with or direct the Chief Constable of the day as to how and when such powers will be used."

Some officers fear that what they see as less confrontational "consensual" Scottish searches will now be replaced with English-style statutory stops that have previously sparked riots south of the border.

Other officers believe that the large numbers of consensual stop-searches endangered police relations with the public, especially young people, just as much as the robust statutory ones carried out in England.

A spokesman for Mr Matheson said that it was Sir Stephen who had suggested the force would consult on ending consensual searches.

He said: "We will explore whether any legislative changes are required once this process is concluded by the end of March.

"This robust and sensible approach will consider the issues fully to ensure the outcome properly balances the safety of communities in Scotland with proportionate and effective powers for police officers.

"It is crucial that this step is allowed to take place without political interference."