The latest twist in the 'Polishambles' that is the new centralised police force was played out at the Justice Committee this week. Chief Constable Stephen House said he is "struggling" with Vic Emery, the chairman of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), over who should have day-to-day control over human resources and finance. Steve House believes they should be under his supervision while Vic Emery believes they should remain closer to the SPA structure.
Steve House told the Justice Committee about "grey areas" in governance and ambiguities in the Police And Fire Reform Act, including "a gobsmacking major problem" where the Act does not appear to give him control over police support staff. The two men said they have taken their own legal advice to discern what their roles and responsibilities would be.
I watched this 'Polishambles' with a wry smile. My Mum always told me that it isn't polite to say, "I told you so", but there are occasions when I can't resist and this is one of them. With any legislation UNISON is involved in I usually start with an issues schedule. This lists all the possible difficulties that we will need to raise with officials, ministers and MSPs. Right at the top of my schedule with this Bill was the respective roles of the SPA and Chief Constable and who would be the employer of Police Staffs. It was plainly obvious that the structure was going to create difficulties and the position of Police Staffs in particular was unclear at best.
Contrary to Vic Emery's insulting assertion about Police Staff just being 'staff'' until he hands them over, they have a clear statutory definition in s26 of the Act. They also transfer to the new organisation with their existing status. What isn't in dispute is that they are employed by the SPA (s26(2)(a)). The confusion arises because the same section of the Act also gives the Chief Constable the power to make appointments, and more importantly, s17(3) gives him the power to direct Police Staff. There are others, but you get the idea. If ever there was a recipe for confusion and mixed accountability this it is.
The real structural problem goes wider than the status of Police Staff. Creating the SPA and the PSS was always going to cause problems. What the Scottish Government should have done is to create a unitary organisation that the Chief Constable reported to. Other governance arrangements could be put in place for forensic services to create the perceived need for separation. A national joint board would also save £millions in VAT, as we also pointed out. It is a well understood structure with roles and responsibilities clearly defined. Of course it would also mean slightly less opportunity for political direction from the Cabinet Secretary!
Having botched the legislation the Scottish Government needs to resolve the mess they created. While we have had our our differences with Steve House over his views on civilianisation, it simply isn't credible to ask him to run the service when key functions are directed elsewhere.
The wider lesson for government is that it is better to listen more carefully to the views of those who understand the services they are reorganising. 'I told you so' may give a certain level of satisfaction, but I would rather we didn't get into this 'Polishambles' in the first place.