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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Time to look again at policing in Scotland

The latest instalment in the sorry story that is Police Scotland has played out with the resignation of  the latest chief constable. Now is the time to step back and take a longer term view of the governance of Police Scotland.

From the outset UNISON Scotland set out a range of concerns over the structure and governance of Police Scotland, and even when the Scottish Government decided to plough on with the merger, we suggested some practical ways a national force could be governed better. Proposals that had the added advantage of retaining millions of pounds of revenue funding that went out of Police Scotland and into the Treasury's pocket, due to the botched VAT fiasco. 

I am tempted just to say, I told you so. While I am entitled to a bit of job satisfaction, there are wider issues that still need to be addressed.

The new Chair of the Scottish Police Authority, Susan Deacon, is in my view entitled to say it's time to draw a line under the Gormley episode. Whatever prurient interest there may be in the allegations, the public interest case is limited. The simple fact is that his position was untenable and it is right that we move on. However, I do accept the point made by Moi Ali and others that there is a case for looking again at professional regulation.

I do think the minister went beyond his remit in the discussions with the former SPA Chair over the chief constable's return to work. However, it is hard to blame him for asking some pretty relevant questions, the answers to which should have been immediately forthcoming. It is frankly incredible that the SPA appears not have considered a range of issues that even a junior HR manager would have identified.

The problem for Police Scotland and the SPA is that this is just the latest in a long line of problems. Operational decisions have been criticised included the raids on sex workers in Edinburgh, stop and search tactics and the routine arming of police officers. Right from the outset there were territorial squabbles between the SPA and Police Scotland that have never been properly resolved. There was no final business case for the merger and force has been beset by financial problems throughout its troubled existence.

On top of all that the Scottish Government imposed the police officer number targets that resulted in police officers replacing specialist civilian staff, often at twice the cost. The statutory duty of Best Value was abandoned to political expediency.

The structure was designed to allow the minister and his civil servants to dabble in the service and the governance arrangements were muddled. It would take a particularly skilled set of chief officials to manage their way through this minefield. Neither the SPA or Police Scotland have been blessed with such appointments. 

In my experience of chief constables, over some 35 years of representing police staffs, is that they fall into two broad categories. The traditional command and control coppers who regard scrutiny and good governance principles as an evil necessity, to be ignored as far as possible. Then there are those who recognise the value of listening to staff who deliver the service and local politicians who understand their communities. Sadly, they are the exception, but Scotland had at least a few of those before Police Scotland. Skills that were unlikely to be recognised when appointing to a highly centralised service that has insufficient local governance.

So, where do we go from here? Five years on, having lost two chief constables and countless others in leadership positions, it is time for a review. That review has to start by setting out clear governance structures at the top - including the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, the SPA and Police Scotland. If we are to retain a national police force (not a given in my view), it has to have a much strengthened local accountability structures, with matching devolved management. Finally, it has to be built on sound finances and modernised using Best Value principles.

I do think the appointment of Susan Deacon was a bit of inspired thinking. She has the intellectual, governance and political skills required. However, putting a competent person into an incompetent structure is rarely enough. If a cabinet reshuffle brings a new minister - that would be a good opportunity for a rethink. If not, then parliament should intervene.

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