Emails published by information boss contradict police stop-search claims

stop and search officer Image copyright Police Scotland
Image caption Newly released documents reveal Police Scotland was not forced to release "inaccurate" stop-search data

Police Scotland was not forced to release "inaccurate" stop-search data, according to new evidence released by the Information Commissioner.

Last week, Chief Constable Sir Stephen House told the police watchdog he had been compelled to release the records.

BBC Scotland used the data to reveal that police had not discontinued stop-searches on under-12s.

But new documents, which show the correspondence between the police and commissioner, contradict his claim.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes called the situation a "sorry mess" which risked seriously undermining public confidence in Scotland's national force.

She said the email exchange "rebuts each and every point the chief constable used in his defence at the Scottish Police Authority (SPA)".

Image caption One email reveals any inaccurate stop-search data would be updated by 2015

A Police Scotland spokeswoman said the chief constable had written to the chair of the SPA on Monday to clarify the position.

She said the force had concerns about the "accuracy or reliability" of the data but had been advised by lawyers that it would face an "adverse decision notice" if the Freedom of Information appeal continued.

The special meeting of the SPA was called after BBC Scotland reported that the data released by Police Scotland had shown 356 children aged under 12 had been subject to "consensual" searches, despite assurances from the force that the practice would cease.

The chief constable said: "I think the BBC reported it as accurately as they could do.

"But the data was not 100% accurate and needed further interpretation."

The BBC was not told that the figures from the police were inaccurate when they were released.

Sir Stephen said: "[The data] was released under the explicit instructions of the Information Commissioner of Scotland.

"We challenged whether it should be released because we said 'we're not 100% certain of the accuracy of the data'.

"We wanted more time to work on it, and we were told 'no, release it now'."

But a new freedom of information request, for all correspondence between the police and the commissioner, tells a different story.

Image caption Another note shows Police Scotland volunteered data not in the original request
Image caption Police Scotland made no mention of inaccuracies related to consensual searches of children

One document in the email thread acknowledges some issues with the stop-search database but that "the timetable for the data correction is still on track" for an early January 2015 release.

Subsequent emails show that BBC Scotland asked for additional stop-search data - outside of the date range originally appealed - which was offered without any resistance by Police Scotland.

In mid-January the force advised the commissioner all stop-search data for 2014 would now be released to BBC Scotland "containing a caveat that a very small number of records contain invalid age data".

However, the disclosure note in the released correspondence reveals that this caveat only warned to ignore ages outside the 1-90 range - and did not warn about any other issues - despite Sir Stephen's claims that "inaccurate" data was released.

In publishing this correspondence, the Information Commissioner stated the release of the data had been negotiated, and not demanded.

The commissioner said: "The disclosure by Police Scotland was voluntary, and gave explanations and context to the data, all of which is good practice by the Police Scotland staff."

Ms McInnes said the emails released by the Information Commissioner rebutted "each and every point the chief constable used in his defence at the SPA".

"The facts do not match his claims," she said.

"He said the Scottish Information Commissioner compelled Police Scotland to publish stop and search information. This exchange makes clear that the release wasn't ordered.

"Police Scotland did not resist this, nor did they seek to make their case in the courts. Contrary to the chief constable's claims, the national force voluntarily released this information."

Ms McInnes added: "The national force spent months correcting stop-and-search data prior to its release. When it was finally released to the BBC, Police Scotland gave no indication whatsoever of further inaccuracies surrounding the consensual search of children.

"And yet, it is evident that Police Scotland's story changed utterly between it dispensing the information on 23 January and their giving evidence to the SPA on Friday 13 February.

"Parliament and the SPA is owed an honest explanation for this sorry mess."

Scottish Labour MSP Hugh Henry said it was clear from the emails issued by the Information Commissioner that there was no coercion and no explicit instructions given.

He added: "His [Sir Stephen House's] alibi for his officers continuing with non-consensual stop and search of under 12s, six months after they said it would be stopped has fallen apart under cross examination.

"He now has some serious questions to answer when he appears before the Justice committee. If Scotland's top police officer can't get his evidence straight there is something far wrong.

"Instead of making excuses and blaming someone else he should have come clean and confessed that the police had got it wrong and were putting it right. That would have had more credibility."

A Police Scotland spokesperson said: "Our decision to release the data was supported by an independent assessment of FoI procedures undertaken by an external firm of solicitors and our assessment of the likelihood of a subsequent adverse decision notice being issued under FoI legislation if the appeal continued.

"Legal advice concurred that Police Scotland is obliged to provide data that falls within the scope of a request, despite our concerns over its accuracy."

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