Analysis: the year in Scottish justice – a need to restore confidence

Written by Jenni Davidson on 5 September 2017 in Inside Politics

This past year has been a tough one for policing in particular, but reform is on the agenda across all areas of justice

Police Scotland officers - Image credit: Ninian Reid via Flickr

There have been some choppy waters for justice this year, not so much for the Scottish Government directly, but for those in charge of policing in Scotland.

In December, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and Police Scotland faced hard criticism by Audit Scotland about financial management after it found poor quality accounts and revenue budget overspend, with further funding shortages projected.

Auditor General Caroline Gardner said it was “unacceptable” that she had had to report on weak financial management in the SPA and Police Scotland in all three years of their existence.

“Substantial improvement is required now to deliver the strong financial leadership, long-term planning and robust scrutiny that will be needed if policing in Scotland is to withstand the major challenges ahead,” she said.

But that paled in comparison with the furore over leadership of the SPA.


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Both the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing and the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee hauled SPA chair Andrew Flanagan over the coals for transparency and other governance issues within the authority, with Public Audit Committee member Alex Neil at one point commenting: “This is not the Kremlin you are running. It is supposed to be an open public body.”

The Justice Sub-Committee on Policing report on the inquiry concluded: “Private committee meetings, issuing papers at the last minute, and reducing input from key stakeholders has damaged the relationship between the SPA and police staff, officers and superintendents.

“It has also raised questions within the police service and externally about the SPA’s accountability, transparency and legitimacy.”

No sooner was this resolved, with changes made and Flanagan resigning, than Police Scotland Chief Constable Phil Gormley came under investigation by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) for alleged gross misconduct.

And while publication of new stop and search guidelines in May should quell controversy over that issue, debate over armed policing and concerns about police call centres continue.

It is this concern over the performance of Scotland’s national force that has been the backdrop to already controversial Scottish Government plans to merge British Transport Police into Police Scotland north of the border, following Smith Commission recommendations that transport policing should be devolved to Scotland.

The Railway Policing Merger Bill was passed in June with backing from the Greens. Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said it would ensure that policing on Scotland’s railways was accountable to the Scottish Parliament, while transport police officers would have access to the “specialist resources of the UK’s second largest police force”.

Critics, however, are concerned about a “dilution” of specialist skills, with BTP Chief Constable Paul Crowther warning Holyrood’s Justice Committee of a “significant outflow of expertise”.

More broadly, these specific concerns must be seen in the greater context of the publication in June of Police Scotland and the SPA’s ‘Policing 2026’, a 10-year strategy to transform policing. It sets out proposed reforms as well as some of the key challenges facing policing over the next decade such as budget cuts, increasing cybercrime, an ageing population and even flooding.

Following the SNP dropping its previous commitment to maintain 1,000 more officers than in 2007 from its 2016 manifesto, Police Scotland is now free to look at the balance of officers to civilian staff.

The plan is to alter the balance of officers to civilian staff, in particular specialists to help deal with cybercrime and mental health problems, and reduce officer numbers by 400 by 2020.

At the launch of the draft strategy, Andrew Flanagan said: “It is becoming clear that a narrow assessment of success, predicated simply on crime figures, officer numbers and cost savings, no longer represent the true test of an effective police service capable of meeting the challenges of the future.”

The Scottish Government also launched its new justice strategy, ‘Justice in Scotland: Vision and Priorities’, in July, which outlines some of the key priorities for change, such as a move away from prison sentences towards more community sentencing, reform and modernisation of the courts system and early multi-agency intervention to prevent offending and reoffending, particularly among young people.

Reviews too were launched to look at legal aid and the legal services sector.

Scotland’s prison population remains proportionately the second highest in Europe and Matheson announced the first two community-based custodial units to replace the Cornton Vale women’s prison.

He said: “By housing women in smaller, community-based units, closer to their families, and providing additional support to address their needs, such as drug and alcohol advice or mental health support, we can further reduce reoffending and so keep crime down and our communities safe.”

The Liberal Democrats have called on the Scottish Government to go further and promised their support to eliminate short-term sentences altogether, which is also supported by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Strang.

And more recently, the latest figures for drug-related deaths show Scotland has the highest level in Europe, two and a half times the UK average, which has led to calls for a move towards a harm-reduction rather than an abstinence approach to Scotland’s drug problem.

Dr Iain McPhee of the University of the West of Scotland told Holyrood: “This ideological approach to drug treatment – which forces users to go completely clean – creates far too high a threshold for many of the country’s problem drug users or ‘heaviest drug users’ to adhere to”.

Health and social care in prisons has also been scrutinised, with a report from the Royal College of Nursing finding that transferring healthcare from the Scottish Prison Service to the NHS had not improved health outcomes, while the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee called on healthcare in prisons to be improved within two years.

More recently, a significant report, the first in the UK on ageing in prisons, concluded that more staff training is needed, as well as changes to prison buildings, to deal with older prisoners and the illnesses associated with ageing.

While legislation to lift the time limit on personal injury claims for child abuse were passed unanimously, the Scottish Government has faced its first real challenge as a minority administration in the form of Labour MSP James Kelly’s member’s bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which has the support of all the opposition parties.

Brexit also has a potential impact on justice. Of particular concern is the use of the European Arrest Warrant, which Home Secretary Amber Rudd in March called “absolutely essential” and “a priority”, but which the UK Government has seemed to backtrack on more recently.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has warned that without it the country could be taken back to the 1950s in terms of its ability to extradite criminals.

And following the Supreme Court’s judgment that the named person policy contravenes human rights legislation, questions remain about whether the Scottish Government can make it work, with feedback from the Faculty of Advocates criticising “a serious lack of clarity for those implementing the legislation and the lack of safeguards for those affected” following proposed changes.

Plenty to be going on with in the coming parliamentary session then.

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