Kenny MacAskill: The new SPA can be a lesson for public boards

Written by Kenny MacAskill on 13 April 2018 in Comment

Public boards have a duty to reflect society, not simply in terms of gender balance but at a much broader level, writes former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill

Kenny MacAskill - Holyrood magazine

The fifth anniversary of the establishment of Police Scotland has passed and stability appears to have been achieved, albeit after a baptism of fire.

Despite its difficulties and a political furore, crime figures have remained low and public confidence high, indicating that whatever problems there were within senior command, at grassroots level, officers and civilian staff simply got on with their jobs. Tragic errors have been learned from and changes have been made at the top of both the police service and its watchdog, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).  

It was the SPA that seemed to be the cause of so much woe for Police Scotland. Difficulties in the relationship between the first SPA chair and chief constable were followed by, frankly, dysfunctionality at operational level within the SPA. 

Scathing reports from parliamentary committees were compounded by what appeared to be on the brink of malicious suspensions of senior officers, redundancy payments at entirely inappropriate levels and in questionable circumstances, never mind staggering relocation expenses with dubious requests for cash payments.

It neither reflected well on the organisation nor the individuals concerned.  

But it’s all change now with a new SPA chair in Susan Deacon and fresh members on the board. That augurs well for procedural and administrative correctness but issues still remain regarding board appointments for the SPA and other public bodies.

Certainly, what went before was entirely unacceptable. It was surprising given the qualifications of those then on the board and the CVs they possessed. I have to confess that I doubted the claims of one board member who had publicly castigated what was going on. I owe an apology to Moi Ali for having doubted her obvious inside knowledge of the SPA and she was right to speak out.  

The new board, though, is a stellar cast with an A-list of the great and good from the public and private sectors. I know many of them well, some I consider friends and I don’t question their talents and ability. For sure, procedural irregularities will be sorted out and administration improved. But what about general oversight when some are remarkably busy in their current roles? 

Issues also arise over high private sector pay and payments to senior council staff that have remained unchallenged and simply been accepted as part of the landscape of our society. Moreover, what about decency, integrity and some general representation from the public that the organisation stands to protect?

Of course, it’s an issue that affects all public boards but it has been highlighted by one so important and that has been so beleaguered. 

As a minister, I recall I would be asked if there were any individuals I’d like to suggest for board and public appointments. I made a few suggestions and some were successful but I always recall one person who wasn’t and it highlights that the emphasis is on financial and administrative skills, not integrity and understanding as the criteria.

For example, I would routinely put forward a local headteacher from probably the most deprived area in my constituency who had served it outstandingly well for years and was active in the church and wider community. I’ll save her any embarrassment and won’t name her but I hugely respected and admired her. Invariably, though, she’d be rejected and when I enquired why, I would be told that she hadn’t completed the forms correctly, whatever that meant but in reality, that she didn’t tick the boxes for those doing the assessments.

Meanwhile, I recall a councillor, who again I won’t name, often being touted and sometimes even appointed. Yet I knew him and frankly, didn’t rate him and was equally aware that the assessment of trade unions he worked with was equally scathing.

Now none of those appointed to the SPA could be described that way and under Susan Deacon’s leadership, sound practice will be invoked. But surely, boards must be more reflective not simply of administrative and financial management but of decency, integrity and understanding of our communities? It is values not just core skills, and decency as well as judgement that are important.

I accept that some of those skills and experiences will be apparent in people newly appointed to the SPA and routinely sitting on the boards of other organisations. But the issue is wider than that.

Our boards have a duty to reflect our society, not simply in terms of gender balance, as is proper, but at a much broader level. For example, with the SPA, what about communities most afflicted by crime and who interact most with the police, such as the deprived area my headteacher was from? 

The SPA will be improved by these appointments but I can’t help feeling some additional representation would benefit us all. As Tom Leonard wrote: “And the prisons were full of many voices, but never the dialect of the judges.”

So, it seems, with board appointments.

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