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Scots police chief warns politicians over use of language around Brexit

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

By Lewis McKenzie, PA Scotland Political Reporter

A senior police chief has urged politicians and public figures to use "temperate and responsible language" when debating Brexit.

Speaking at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, Police Scotland deputy chief constable Will Kerr warned that some of the language being used was making it more difficult to "police the environment".

It follows Prime Minister Boris Johnson being told by MPs to temper his language, having been condemned for comments including use of the term "surrender act" to refer to a law designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

"One of our biggest concerns is the unpredictability of the environment that we face at the moment in terms of the reaction of the public to rapidly evolving and rapidly changing events," Mr Kerr told MSPs.

"And in that rapidly changing environment, words and behaviour matter.

"So the importance of temperate and responsible language and behaviour from those in positions of civic leadership - from politicians, from anybody who has a degree of leadership responsibility across Scotland and wider - cannot be overstated.

"People are entitled to express strongly held views, and there are a range of strongly held views on this issue, and Police Scotland will protect that right to express those strongly held views, but they must be expressed peacefully and lawfully."

He added: "I think certainly some of the issues we've seen recently, some of the language being used makes it more difficult to police the environment and I think it's very important that we have an open and transparent debate about that issue."

Asked by SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth whether Brexit had potentially acted as a catalyst to fuel extremist activity, Mr Kerr said that intelligence work is ongoing to identify risks.

"At a time of political uncertainty, political fragility perhaps, there's also a risk that those on the extremes are going to look to exploit that situation. We've seen some of the evidence of that recently," he said.

"What we have established right at the outset, and still are maintaining, is an EU exit intelligence cell, so what we can do, as you would expect us to do on your behalf, is open source monitoring, looking at social media commentary, looking at some of the groups who may be on the extreme fringes who may be more inclined to be involved in some of this disorder.

"Part of that intelligence overview and work involves reaching out, as we do on a daily basis, to colleagues in Northern Ireland to see if there's any associated risk across the Irish Sea.

"And there are some risks of - I suppose you'd probably describe them as proxy-symptoms - about a rise in hate crime.

"We haven't seen that in Scotland, unlike our colleagues in England and Wales which we're obviously grateful and working very hard to try and maintain that."

Mr Kerr added: "Frankly what I'm more concerned about at the moment is not the high-end disorder - I hope I'm not proved wrong in that, if it happens we'll deal with it as you would expect.

"But it's actually the low-end disruption that you might get from people being genuinely annoyed, large queues at the borders and at ports, if you end up with some viral image of an empty shelf in a supermarket that all of a sudden within two to three days you could end up with protester concern at supermarkets around food or fuel shortages - that's the sort of stuff that's incredibly resource-intensive for us to police."

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