By Kath Murray

In the New Year, MSPs will vote on whether to allow police officers a power to search children for alcohol. The background is as follows. Officers can at present search for alcohol on a non-statutory basis, which involves asking a person if they are willing to be searched. However, on the recommendation of the Independent Advisory Group on stop and search, non-statutory stop and search is set to abolished in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill.

In response to this move, senior officers have argued that scrapping non-statutory stop and search will result in a significant loss in terms of officers’ powers. As Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick stated earlier this year: “The big issue at the heart of all this is that we have no power to search under-18s for alcohol. That leaves us with a gap.”

The problem is that there is no hard evidence to support this view, principally because until recently, Police Scotland did not collect the necessary data. To explain, although officers do not have a statutory power that allows them to search children for alcohol, they do have a statutory power of seizure that allows them to confiscate alcohol (under Section 61 of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997). Now until mid-2015, officers recorded alcohol seizures and alcohol searches under the same heading. In practice, this meant it was impossible to work out how many alcohol detections resulted from non-statutory search, and how many resulted from seizure. In other words, it was impossible to separate the two types of encounter and calculate the size of the ‘gap’.

In June, Police Scotland introduced an upgraded database that records alcohol searches and seizures separately. This shows that the overwhelming number of alcohol detections result from seizure, not from stop and search. In fact, over ninety per cent of alcohol detections involving under 18s between June and September resulted from seizure. Only six per cent involved a non-statutory stop and search.

Looking at these new figures, the "gap" for a search power looks exceptionally small – which calls into question the value of an additional power. These observations aside, there are other reasons why a power to search children for alcohol might not be a good idea. For instance, we know that used unfairly, stop and search can damage police-community relationships, as well as the related ability of officers to do their job. Taking into consideration the scale of stop and search in Scotland over the last decade, the risk is that additional search powers may damage the relationship between young people and the police further. Bear in mind also, as Professor James Chalmers has pointed out, that Parliament purposefully intended the absence of a search power for alcohol in the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997 to minimize potential tension between young people and the police.

It is clear that Scotland has a problem with alcohol and alcohol-related crime. The question is how we address it. John Carnochan, the retired director of the Violence Reduction Unit argues that a stronger and fairer case can be made for a preventative and collaborative approach that tackles licensing and targets off sales in deprived areas, as well as responsible adults. Police Scotland figures, as well as survey data on underage drinking pattern,s bear this argument out. Data from the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use (Salsus) survey shows that children from deprived areas are more likely to access alcohol from off sales than children from more affluent areas. Salsus data also show that children from the most deprived areas are more likely to get into trouble with the police for underage drinking – even though underage drinking is more or less evenly distributed in terms of background deprivation. We also know that this type of adversarial contact risks drawing young people into the criminal justice system.

Police Scotland has made significant progress in stop and search policy and practice. Still, a more constructive and fairer approach will require time, resources and a clear steer from senior officers to bed down properly. An additional power of search, in particular, one that is difficult to pin down, open to wide interpretation and exclusively aimed at children seems unlikely to facilitate this direction, nor does it appear to be justified. The fact that most alcohol detections result from seizure, not stop and search, suggests that additional powers of search are not necessary.