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Individuals, not structures, are the cause of policing problems in Scotland

Individuals, not structures, are the cause of policing problems in Scotland

Kenny MacAskill - Image credit: Holyrood

Police Scotland’s troubles continue, with the supervisory agency and even the minister being dragged in.

It’s therefore a worthwhile juncture to consider how we got to this point and where we go from here.

Certainly, there have been issues and tragic failings – they’ve been well recorded.

But it should still be borne in mind, as the fifth anniversary of the service nears, that its record in keeping Scotland safe is quite remarkable.

All that whilst facing not just the difficulties caused by austerity, but also challenges brought about by terrorism, historic sexual abuse and cybercrime.

The fundamental problems have largely been with individuals and their actions, rather than with anything structural in the policing landscape.

That’s ranged from human error, with calamitous consequences, as with the M9 tragedy, through to the scathing criticism by the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee of the actions of the past chair of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), to alleged behaviour by senior officers including the chief constable and resulting in suspensions.

It’s no doubt why few call for any wholesale reform, though improvements can always be made.

That’s understandable, in many ways, as the legislation was extensively considered and widely debated, gathering broad political support.

The concept of a single service, normal in many small European nations, was driven by financial necessity but offered an opportunity to provide the best possible service nationally.

Structural reform is complex and far from easy in any organisation, public or private, and compounded in one so visible and varied as policing.

But it needed to be done as the financial challenges were such that smaller constabularies would have been unable to provide the required service without the economies of scale.

Evidence of that is readily available in England, where cuts are biting and police numbers plummeting.

Financial challenges remain as projected savings from IT changes have collapsed.

However, the ability to make changes is now far easier and other significant savings have been made. The preservation of officer numbers testifies to that.

The service delivery, in many aspects, has hugely improved and a postcode lottery on some policies, such as tackling domestic abuse, has ended.

Some have lamented that a regional model of, say, three forces wasn’t invoked, but that was considered and rejected. Savings were limited and offset by the cost of change.

Moreover, the advice from Finland, which had moved from many smaller forces through a regional model to a single service, was clear: if you’re going to change, change just once.

The real issues have been at the top; they remain unedifying and seemingly, are continuing.

Whatever the outcome of investigations into the chief constable, his tenure looks increasingly fragile.

Even if the allegations are not substantiated, they disclose a management style that has jarred with senior colleagues.

His deputy has been called on to rescind his planned retirement and has been allowed to make changes to the senior command team.

With Phil Gormley’s contract up later this year, a fresh start, whether under the current acting chief constable or another, is required, not a return to disharmony.

However, that will be a decision for Susan Deacon, who’s taken over as chair of the SPA, the body from which most of the issues have been generated.

The tenure of her predecessor, Andrew Flanagan, was heavily criticised, but she’s a highly capable individual and well able to cope.

She’ll have to review not just the leadership of Police Scotland, but the structure of the SPA itself.

The problem, as the parliamentary committee noted, though, was more with the style of governance and particular actions of the chair and CEO than the institution itself.

There have also been recent criticisms of the SPA by a former board member.

While some members lacked talent, many others were perfectly able. Many of those concerns would appear to relate to a culture set by the past chair.

However, with both a new chair and chief officer, as well as new board members currently being sought, a fresh start can be made under a leadership team.

Whether more fundamental changes are needed will be for Susan Deacon and the SPA to decide.

Some changes, though, have already been suggested and even accepted in principle by government.

In a national service, it’s right that the chair’s appointment should be by parliament, not the minister.

However, other than that change to her own appointment method, it’s hard to see what further changes are needed, other than in actions and style.

As with the establishment of Police Scotland, options were considered all those years ago.

Direct ministerial oversight by the justice secretary, as in Ireland, was rejected and it was rightly believed that appointment to the board should be on merit, not a political sinecure dispensed by party or council.

Moreover, the board should oversee, not daily manage, the police service.  

So, what Police Scotland and the SPA really need is for the new leadership teams to get on with the job without being convulsed in continuing controversy.

A change in style and an attempt to eliminate tragic errors, rather than a revolution, as Napoleon sought of his generals, should be a key focus – along with some good fortune.

Read the most recent article written by Kenny MacAskill - Indyref2: from gung-ho to go-slow



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