The thin blue line

Written by Jenni Davidson on 7 July 2017 in Comment

The police are referred to as the thin blue line’ but that’s normally understood to be the police holding back the chaos outside, not a line of disorder running within policing itself

Police Scotland: Picture credit - Ninian Reid via Flickr

There has been a stark contrast in the last few weeks between the praise heaped on frontline police and the fire service for their heroism in the face of an almost weekly occurrence of terrorists attacks and other tragedies such as the Grenfell fire and the ongoing scandals around management of policing in Scotland, which have been grumbling on for months. 

The announcement last month of the resignation of Scottish Police Authority (SPA) chair Andrew Flanagan has come too late to undo the damage of weeks of a public hauling over the coals and pulling apart of the organisation’s structures – which SNP MSP Alex Neil likened to running the Kremlin – in Scottish parliamentary committees. It is not only the loss of confidence in Flanagan that has undermined the SPA, so simply replacing him will not be enough to restore trust in the organisation.

The police are often referred to as ‘the thin blue line’, symbolising a border between chaos and order. But that’s normally understood to be the police holding back the chaos outside, not a line of disorder running within policing itself, which is what the last few weeks have suggested. 

An HMICS report into the governance of policing two weeks ago, raised concerns about “dysfunction” between the chair and the chief executive of the SPA. Chief Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman also identified “fundamental weakness in the current executive structures” which call into question the capability of chief executive Andrew Foley, who was also taken to task by MSPs. 
Questions need to be asked, too, about how far the remaining board members have addressed the criticisms and are committed to making changes. 

To further add to concerns, last week another report by Assistant Inspector of Constabulary Gill Imery into management of forensic services – for which the SPA is directly responsible – found a lack of improvement in areas the police auditor had previously highlighted to the SPA and Police Scotland, poor strategic consultation by the SPA with Police Scotland and the Crown Office and, critically, that the body had failed for four years to put in place a long-term strategy for forensics.

The first HMICS report does acknowledge improvements in SPA management over the last 18 months, including a better relationship with Police Scotland and improved financial reporting – another area that has been criticised, this time by Audit Scotland. However, fundamental change is needed to build confidence that the body is fit for purpose and able to oversee policing, particularly in these challenging times.

There are advantages to having a single force in Scotland, but having only one force and one police authority reporting straight to government makes it even more crucial that the police authority board overseeing that is as effective as it can be. 

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has announced an inquiry into the support given to the SPA board. However, the entire structure of police governance needs to be examined, including the appointment process and whether the right expertise and experience is being fed in through both the board membership and engagement with stakeholders such as the public and police staff representatives.

With the decision last week to merge railway policing north of the border into Police Scotland, this becomes even more important. There is only one chance to get that right to prevent a loss of morale and the consequent exodus of staff and expertise from British Transport Police, who are already concerned about the decision. It is essential that the problems with the SPA are resolved well ahead of the enactment of the legislation.​

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