Thursday, 20 December 2007

Stop and search and political posturing

Last weekend, it was reported that the British Transport Police had carried out over 14,000 stop and search operations at train stations in Scotland since July, as compared to a total of 135 by all Scottish police forces in 2007. That led to a demand for an explanation from the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who said that the situation “seems to me to be unacceptable” and that he was planning to hold a meeting with the BTP about the situation. (See this report on the BBC News website.)

Today, a UK transport minister, Tom Harris MP, who represents a Glasgow constituency, has written to Mr MacAskill demanding an unreserved apology for his “outrageous” comments (click here for a report and a clip from a radio interview with Mr Harris). In his letter, he defends the BTP’s actions as follows:

"Terrorists have recently targeted transport infrastructure in this country (London Underground and Glasgow Airport) and it is therefore right that the BTP are vigilant and do everything practicable within its authority to disrupt and deter terrorist activity."

It might have been better for Mr Harris if he had omitted the bracketed text, which rather weakens his point. British Transport Police’s remit runs only to national rail services and the London Underground (click here for a brief discussion of the BTP’s remit and its future).

It follows, therefore, that Strathclyde Police – and not the BTP – have responsibility for policing Glasgow Airport, the Glasgow Underground, Prestwick Airport and the road network throughout their area. (It is not clear to me which of the two has responsibility for the Glasgow suburban rail network outside of the mainline stations.)

As the minister responsible for the BTP, Mr Harris must be taken to be aware of their remit. So it is unfortunate that he chose to comment directly about the necessity for stop and search operations, rather than (say) concentrating on the manner in which Mr MacAskill made his comments and saying something about the need to trust the BTP's professional judgment. As it is, it is difficult not to take Mr Harris' comments - although they are unlikely to have been intended this way - as being a clear criticism of Strathclyde Police (and other Scottish forces) for not exercising stop and search powers.

While Mr Harris was quick to criticise Mr MacAskill for not telephoning the BTP to discuss the matter before making his criticisms public, it emerged during his radio interview that he had not phoned Mr MacAskill himself, but had instead written a letter – which he released to the media before it was received by Mr MacAskill.

Regardless of whether stop and search powers are being legitimately exercised or not, neither of the politicians involved – and certainly not Mr Harris – seems to come out with much credit. Apologies all round? (Unlikely.)

[Update (2/1/08): A comment posted to this article states that the BTP do in fact police the Glasgow Subway (the official name for the system). On further checking, it appears that BTP took over policing duties for the Subway in early 2007. Apologies for the error (and also for the delay in publishing the comment and making this correction, due to the Christmas break). That weakens, but does not seem to invalidate, the argument made here.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting overview of this story. Just to note, BTP do police the suburban network in Glasgow and do police the Glasgow underground too.