Controversy over chief constable return to work exposes fiasco in SPA decision making

Written by Jenni Davidson on 13 January 2018 in Comment

The problems in Scottish policing begin to seem like a TV drama, but they are not very entertaining

Police Scotland chief constable Phil Gormley - Image credit: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

This week saw the latest instalment of a seemingly never ending saga over troubles at the top of Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

It is a long running story that is beginning to seem like something that could be in a TV drama, filled as it is with a string of gossip, allegation and counter allegation, subterfuge and twists. Very entertaining if it’s The Bill. Not so good if it’s the actual polis.

Not only have two of the most senior police officers in Scotland had serious accusations levelled at them in as many months, and both the chair and the chief executive of the body charged with overseeing them have left their posts following criticisms of their governance, the latest revelations suggest the SPA board is unable even to manage the proper implementation of a return from leave.

So the situation appears to be as follows. The chief constable chooses to go on “special leave” with the permission of the SPA board following misconduct complaints against him. The SPA board then recalls him from this voluntary leave at the beginning of November, but fails to let anyone else know it has done that.

When the Justice Secretary questions the board’s handling and communication of this recall, the SPA decides to reverse its decision and reinstate the leave.

Through his lawyer, the chief constable then threatens legal action if the justice secretary is found to have interfered and prevented him returning from leave, even though he could have given 14 days’ notice and returned from leave at any time he chose, and remains able to do so.

While it’s far from ideal that the Scottish Government should have any input into a matter relating to complaints against a senior officer, there can be little doubt that in the circumstances, where neither the PIRC nor the acting chief constable, Iain Livingstone, who had reversed his decision to retire in order to cover Gormley’s absence, had been told of his return – the day before he was due to come back – and no provision had been made for the protection of those who had made complaints, what else could he possibly do?

As Michael Matheson said, answering questions in the Scottish Parliament on the situation on Wednesday: “To those who wish to criticise my actions, let them consider this, had the chief constable returned to work on the 10 November, and had it then transpired that no consultation had taken place with any of the relevant interests, and further, that I had failed to ask any questions about that, I suspect the criticism would be harsher.”

Matheson is right. Who, in those circumstances, would not have said to the SPA chair, ‘Have you gone completely mad?’ or words to that effect. Matheson would have certainly be open to serious criticism had he simply let events take their course and it subsequently came to light that he knew and did nothing.

However, what is oddest in this most recent instalment of this whole circus, is that the procedures being followed seem to suggest that Phil Gormley was suspended when he wasn’t.

And it perhaps calls into question why he was not actually suspended and whether it was right to allow him to take “special leave” that he could return from when he wished with no protection for those who had made complaints. Suspension does not imply guilt, it is simply a practical procedure to avoid a misconduct procedure being prejudiced while it is ongoing.

Alex Neil referred in parliament to “reports of some people allegedly delaying giving their evidence to the Police Investigations and Reviews Commissioner (PIRC) in relation to complaints against the chief constable”.

Whatever the reasons for this are, as Neil also said, “it is vital that the chief constable and the complainants are treated fairly and that the process is robust”. Hopefully that does not turn into a future instalment of this series of unfortunate events that is bringing our national force into disrepute.

Both former chair of the SPA board Andrew Flanagan and former chief executive John Foley have been called to give evidence to the Public Audit Committee on 25 January.

Let us hope that puts an end to this circus. This is one story that could do with a clear conclusion rather than a cliffhanger.



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