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13 February 2015, 13:00
The absence of powers to search under-18s for alcohol must be addressed if consensual stop-and-searches are ended, Police Scotland has said.
A working group is to be set up to review measures to replace non-statutory or "consensual'' searches for all age groups.
But the force says ending the practice will leave gaps in their ability to protect the public, with tackling under-age drinking and anti-social behaviour identified as one area of concern.
The past and future use of consensual stop-and-search was discussed at a specially-called meeting of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the body which holds the force to account.
Deputy chief constable Rose Fitzpatrick told the meeting: "The big issue at the centre of all of this is that we have no power to search under-18s for alcohol.
"That leaves us with a gap... However you play this, that would be a significant consequence and a loss I think, so we would need to plug that gap.''
Stop-and-search has enabled officers to reduce disorder, she said, adding that a third of those carried out were for alcohol, with 40% of these related to alcohol and under-18s.
She said that at a previous SPA meeting, Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House had "raised the point that there was a possible future option for us to seek statutory powers to search for alcohol'' because of the implications around young people and their health and wellbeing.
The meeting in Glasgow came after data obtained under Freedom of Information showed that 356 under-12s were stopped and searched on a consensual basis, despite a clear commitment last year to end the practice for children.
Police Scotland revealed that it has now reviewed the data, and only 18 of the searches had been contrary to force policy.
Analysis showed that a number of searches had been carried out under legislative powers, others had taken place when a parent or guardian was present, and IT problems and input errors meant many searches had been incorrectly recorded.
Sir Stephen said: "This information was released under the Freedom of Information Act on the express instruction of the Freedom of Information Commissioner in Scotland.
"We challenged whether it should be released because we were not 100% certain of the accuracy, we wanted more time to work on it. We were told 'no, release it now'.''
He added: "Consensual search of under-12-year-olds is not illegal.
"It is perfectly lawful for an officer to carry out that search if they think it is appropriate to do it.
"It is a policy decision that we believe that, in terms of proportionality, we should be moving away from stop-and-search consensually of under-12s and I would rather see that none take place.''
Sir Stephen said the review of the data had shown that there were only a "relatively small number'' of searches of under-12s, and he "would applaud the officers' ethics in recording that, knowing that we would get in touch with them on an individual basis and say, 'can you explain that?'''.
"There are perfectly valid reasons why operationally police officers sometimes step outside of policy,'' he added.
Questioned on why the SPA had not been informed of the searches, Sir Stephen said: "We should have brought this forward to you and told you about it, and we didn't do that. That was a mistake and we are trying to fix that.''