Susan Deacon on the future of the Scottish Police Authority

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 13 April 2018 in Inside Politics

The SPA chair tells Holyrood why she grasped the position that many regard as a poisoned chalice – that of being a buffer between Police Scotland and the Scottish Government

Susan Deacon - credit David Anderson/Holyrood

He was the inscrutable maverick who turned an ailing organisation plagued by technological setbacks into a runaway success, so perhaps Steve Jobs is as good a role model as any for the new chair of the Scottish Police Authority.

Susan Deacon’s career in public life began in the era of the Apple Macintosh as the chair of Scottish Labour Students. She was elevated to the first Scottish Executive in the age of the ground-breaking iPod and bowed out of frontline politics as the unassailable iPhone hit the shelves – sparing herself the mauling that her colleagues received at the hands of the so far unassailable SNP.

Since she stood down from the Scottish Parliament she has had an eclectic career as an academic, chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD), a government early years champion, and a board member of energy, transport, arts and sporting organisations.

So how did this long and winding road, to borrow a phrase from another Apple company, lead her to the chair of a police watchdog which seems to have spent more time being scrutinised than scrutinising?

“Steve Jobs said, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards’,” says Deacon as she reflects on the journey that led her to the SPA.

“I have got a profound sense of that now, having reached a certain age. He was basically telling young people to grasp the opportunity, go with their instinct and trust good luck and karma.

“The thread that runs through it all, going back to childhood, even, is a real curiosity about the world, a desire to try to do my bit to make it better, and a particular interest and involvement in many things Scottish along the way.”

Deacon sees her new role as being a buffer between the government and police but believes this is a more complex relationship than simply locking ministers out of SPA decision making.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson was accused of interfering in the scrutiny of the SPA by raising concerns about its decision, under previous leadership, to let chief constable Phil Gormley return to work while he was being investigated for misconduct.

Matheson stood by his decision – and Deacon thinks he was right and should intervene again if the SPA makes any more questionable decisions.

“In that instance, and given the context, the cabinet secretary was right to intervene and to question the process that was followed and I completely stand by that view. The relationship between the government and the SPA is much more multifaceted than just the cabinet secretary or particular individual decisions, and part of the journey going forward is to get the relationships right between the SPA, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government.

“It’s not just right that ministers take an interest – they have a responsibility to.

“Policing is one of Scotland’s biggest public services, it is the second biggest police force in the UK, it has got a budget of over £1 billion and the line of accountability must ultimately go to the government and the parliament.

“The cabinet secretary approves the appointment of the chief constable, so it’s not as black and white as the Scottish Government should be involved or not involved, it’s about getting involvement in the right way, at the right time.

“Everybody talks about arm’s length bodies but the question for me is, how long is the arm? It is directly proportional to how effective the body is working.

“If they are working well, the government stays at arm’s length, but when there are issues then it is right and proper that the government draws in the arm.”

One of the biggest concerns that opponents of police reform had was that the single police force would be too susceptible to political interference, so where does Deacon draw the line between a minister “getting involved” and exercising an influence?

And, once the principle is established that it is right for a minister to “get involved” in certain circumstances, what safeguards are in place to prevent an ideologically driven politician from steering the police down some potentially unsavoury paths at some point in the future?

Deacon insists police governance involves more than just the government, the police and its watchdog.

“Remember, the SPA has others who inspect and regulate it,” says Deacon.

“Government, parliament and its committees, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Audit Scotland and to some extent, PIRC (Police Investigations and Review Commissioner) because they have audit functions in aspects of the SPA.

“You need to command the confidence of your authorising environment to be able to assert your role effectively as a proper arm’s length body.”

Deacon believes the safeguard against any unwarranted intrusion by an ideological politician lies in these other regulatory bodies, who would raise a red flag if a minister made unreasonable demands on the police or its watchdog.

Audit Scotland, for example, has displayed no reluctance in raising red flags over governance at the SPA in the last five years, most recently in its scathing report into “unacceptable” relocation and tax liability payments totalling over £100,000.

“In the work that Audit Scotland did on this, the issue wasn’t around the policy but around the way the decision had been taken,” insists Deacon.

“Kenneth Hogg, the chief officer, and I have been working really hard to ensure that we have the processes in place so that when Audit Scotland scrutinise the way we have taken financial decisions – whether it is around individual packages or staff appointments or any other resource decision – we want to make sure our processes stand up to scrutiny.

“You need to have these things working smoothly so you don’t end up with Section 22 reports from Audit Scotland and end up spending inordinate amounts of time defending individual decisions when you’ve got a job of work to do.”

Police Scotland is currently without a permanent chief constable following the controversial departure of Phil Gormley and it is wrestling with a £188m funding gap, so people might be forgiven for thinking the job of scrutinising such a wayward organisation would be a full-time job.

But Deacon has decided to maintain some of her external interests to give her what she terms “a hinterland” outside the police and its watchdog. She remains on the board of Lothian Buses and the Edinburgh Festivals Forum, is continuing her involvement with Edinburgh University in an advisory role and is coming to the end of her tenure as chair of the IoD.

“Non-executives work with other organisations so they have got a wider perspective and wider networks, and I think that is crucially important in the SPA given its role,” she says. “Although my SPA role is not a bona fide full-time position, it was clear that that is going to have to be my absolute major priority, but I don’t think it should be a full-time job. 

“You are not there to run the organisation, you’re there to guide it, to steer it, to set the direction, absolutely to ensure that its leadership and governance is right and that it has the capacity and the capability that it needs – but you are not the full-time paid staff who are there to actually run it.”

Deacon has taken a keen outside interest in police reform over the last five years.

She saw it as an example of the “bold and radical” approach to public service delivery that she would like to see more of, but she admits that she was disappointed with some of the formative debates around the creation of Police Scotland which saw an unedifying power struggle between her predecessor, Vic Emery, and the force’s first chief constable, Stephen House.

“Looking from the outside in, I, like others, was disappointed and a bit perplexed that the authority hadn’t grown more into the space that I think self-evidently it needs to be in, not least as a buffer organisation between politics and the police,” she says.

“It just seems screamingly obvious to me that although the SPA has a range of quite complex functions, fundamentally, part of its core raison d’être is to be that buffer and to be the lens through which the public can see the police in Scotland.

“It should also play a more active role as a conduit through which Police Scotland itself can tell its story.”

One accusation that has been levelled at the SPA in recent years is that it lacked transparency, but in some ways, the watchdog was too transparent for its own good. Piles of committee papers and reports were published online and hastily retracted when journalists picked out notable headlines, and occasionally confidential papers were published in error revealing details such as Police Scotland’s readiness for a terrorist attack.

The SPA retreated into its shell and refused to publish papers until hours before board meetings, giving outside observers little chance to understand the topics that were being discussed.
Pretty soon, the perceived lack of transparency drew the attention of opposition politicians who painted a picture of an organisation with an impenetrable bunker mentality.

Intriguingly, Deacon’s approach to transparency is to publish more “selectively” but communicate the information better.

“To me, transparency isn’t just about throwing loads of information into the public domain,” she says.

“It’s about engaging effectively and consistently, and explaining what you are doing, and sometimes that means actually not putting information in the public domain because too much detail can cloud understanding, so to be selective and to distill information is not necessarily a bad thing.

“I’ve said this recently with regards to the complaints and investigations process (into Phil Gormley), there should be confidentiality for the people complained against and the people complaining. The idea that you just throw the doors open and put that information out there – you could argue that there have been too many agencies involved who have put too much information out there and have compromised the confidentiality of the process.

"So transparency, for me, is ultimately about good communication and engagement and ensuring that the conduct and culture that you encourage creates a sense that you are being genuinely open, authentic, honest, and operating with high levels of probity and integrity.”

Deacon admits she struggled to understand the issues the SPA was grappling with as an outsider and has made it her mission to simplify its operation and make its decision making clearer.

“I want our public board meetings to be more focused on the big strategic issues and debates that are affecting the future of policing,” she says.

“There has been a lot of detailed examination of the reform programme and budgets which have taken place in that forum, and while I think it is important that the SPA scrutinises that work carefully, I’m not convinced that the main public board meeting is the best way to do it if we’re trying to use that board as a window on to policing for Scotland and let a wider audience engage.”

Deacon is also keen to encourage the SPA committees to escalate some of the weighty issues they encounter in their papers – but rarely discuss in open session – such as discrimination, suspended police officers, complaints or dilapidated police stations to the showcase forum of the main SPA board meeting.

“The main SPA board should be more in line with the good practice that you see on a parliamentary committee, hearing or inquiry,” she says.

“From day one, I have consistently said to our board members, staff and Police Scotland that we need to refocus, pull in some of the stuff that we are doing, and crucially, lift it up.

“Things have sprawled, there are bits of activity and attention in all sorts of quarters, with individual board members involved in different things, and as a consequence, certain aspects of what is going on in policing is subject to very detailed examination of a board member or a committee, while other big-ticket issues aren’t getting the attention that I think they deserve.

“It is about getting better at engaging in a certain level of scrutiny at committee level, and then pushing some of these big, well curated, well developed, well understood debates into that public space which is the full board meeting.”

With no chief constable in place, allegations of a bullying culture still unresolved, a recently announced decision to cut police numbers, a funding shortfall, and constant Scottish Police Federation complaints about poor conditions, the question for Police Scotland – and its watchdog – is, how does it keep attracting young people to join the force?

“I’m not best equipped to answer that question – go and speak to the cops that are coming into the job now,” says Deacon.

“They answer that question and this is the thing that recharges my batteries and makes it genuinely for me a privilege to be in this role, is that you just hear their huge enthusiasm and commitment to doing the job of policing in Scotland.

“And do you know what? Policing in Scotland is performing well and I completely go along with others who have made the distinction between the debate and the criticism around issues to do with leadership and governance at the SPA and Police Scotland, and the actual performance of policing in Scotland.

“The young people coming into the job would tell you what a satisfying and challenging position it is.

“From where I am sitting, I would say that it is an occupation that we all depend on, and I think for somebody who has the interest, the resilience and the commitment to do that job and all that goes with it, it is a fantastic occupation to go into.

“I was at Fettes one evening, and there was a big queue of youngsters at the door and the guy at the desk told me it was one of the regular sessions that they have to let local youngsters come and find out about a career in policing.

“There are still people queueing up to join Police Scotland – and long may that continue."

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