Friday 13th is a much disliked date on the calendar and is often said to be unlucky amongst the superstitious. It would seem that Friday 13th February isn’t turning out to have been a great day for Sir Stephen House, the Chief Constable of Scotland’s national police force. On 13th February the body that is responsible for holding the Chief Constable to account, the Scottish Police Authority, convened a Special Board meeting to discuss the growing disquiet amongst many groups over the use of stop and search tactics by the Police Service of Scotland (PSoS). The SPA questioned the Chief Constable and one of his two deputies, Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick on the issue. Information released by the Scottish Information Commissioner today adds another blow to the Chief Constable in what could be described as a very long round in an extremely long boxing match.
The PSoS has faced a great deal of criticism over its use of stop and search, particularly non-statutory (or “consensual”) searches and especially non-statutory searches on minors under the age of 12. Last year an undertaking was given to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice committee that the PSoS would effectively ban its officers from undertaking non-statutory searches on minors under the age of 12. Earlier this month the BBC published a huge volume of data that suggested that this had been ignored on a large scale.
It has transpired that the information was obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA). We have learned that this came following an initial refusal by the PSoS to release the data allegedly over concerns as to its accuracy. When the Chief Constable appeared before the Scottish Police Authority he stated that he had been forced by the Scottish Information Commissioner to release the information. That, as it turns out, wasn’t quite the case. The PSoS released the information following external legal advice. From what is available it suggests that the legal advice obtained by the PSoS advised that not releasing the data risked an adverse decision notice and as a consequence of that, the PSoS released the information to the BBC journalist who had requested it.
FOISA gives a right to individuals to access information held by public authorities in a recorded format. There is no right in FOISA to be given accurate information, nor is there an exemption in FOISA to enable public bodies to withhold information that is, or is believed to be, inaccurate. This is not a new thing; it has been the position for some 10 years now. If a public authority holds information in a recordable format and none of the exemptions in FOISA apply, then a person who asks for that information is entitled to be given it.
If the information is inaccurate that is the public authority’s problem, not the requesters. If a public authority cannot have in place measures to ensure that the information it is recording is accurate, then that says a lot about the authority. This whole fiasco has raised some serious questions about information management within the PSoS. It would seem that police officers have been routinely entering incorrect information into the PSoS systems that record stop and searches. That is something that must be rectified, and not just from an FOI perspective. If the information that the PSoS holds is not accurate that will result in a significant knock-on effect across the whole organisation. It means that everyone, from the Chief Constable down, is working from dodgy information. Such a situation means that decision-making across the organisation is weakened.
What is even more astounding was the Chief Constable’s admission to the Police Authority that he could not give a 100% assurance over other data held by the PSoS. That is quite an admission to be made by the Chief Constable to the body that holds him to account. It casts doubt on the accuracy of all data held by the PSoS; including recorded crime.
FOI here has proved itself rather useful. We may not be wiser about the extent to which the PSoS is using stop and search in Scotland, but what it has revealed is failings in the ability of the PSoS to accurately record what it is doing. It has opened up to scrutiny the information management practices of the PSoS and in the furore over stop and search sight should not be lost of what is a significant admission by the Chief Constable of the PSoS. A debate over the use of stop and search in Scotland still has to be had, but sorting out the apparent mess of the systems used by the PSoS to record data has to feature highly on the list of priorities for the Scottish Police Authority and HMICS. We cannot have a situation where there is a lack of confidence in the data held by the PSoS.