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19 February 2016
Scottish Police Authority face a tricky task pleasing everyone with review of police governance

Scottish Police Authority face a tricky task pleasing everyone with review of police governance

“There is no doubt that the loss of the direct accountability of the chief constable, or indeed his deputy for local policing, has engendered resentment and frustration at local level, which has in turn just fuelled politicisation which was in the media and in Holyrood,” one well-placed policing source told this magazine last October, a few weeks after a local policing summit called by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson to try and appease those in local government.

Andrew Flanagan, then new chair of the Scottish Police Authority, was charged with leading a “rapid review of governance” after Matheson acknowledged that several incidents had “knocked confidence in policing”.

However, drawing up a settlement that can satisfy both national and local players is always going to be problematic. Indeed, the decision not to include umbrella body COSLA on a reference group tasked by the SPA with reviewing and agreeing recommendations to be made to the Justice Secretary is unlikely to make it much easier.

“For the SPA’s governance review to be sure to be relevant, local government’s independent role as part of the Scotland-wide scrutiny arrangements must be adequately covered,” COSLA president, Councillor David O’Neill, tells Holyrood. “It is regrettable, therefore, that COSLA, the representative voice of local government, was not given a place on the reference group.”

An SPA spokeswoman responded that the body, over and above having a local authority chief executive and local scrutiny chair on the review panel, had “engaged heavily” with local government for their input.

Two workshop sessions and a number of individual ones for elected members and officers covering the majority of Scotland’s local authorities have been held since the review got underway.

Written submissions have also been received from almost 40 stakeholders. Highland Council, for instance – heavily critical regarding decision-making on armed policing – wants to see a local impact assessment carried out, incorporating so-called rural proofing, whenever changes to policy or practice are considered nationally.

Clackmannanshire Council is calling for local policing plans to contain a section on national policy proposals, following complaints that too often local scrutiny committees are sidelined when it comes to decisions with local repercussions albeit made further up the chain than the local policing commander appearing before them.

Indeed, COSLA has underlined the need for a “clear, formal opportunity” for locally elected members to scrutinse national policing decisions. “We need greater clarity over what can and cannot be discussed and what can and cannot be held to account by locally elected members,” says O’Neill.

“For this to happen, local policing commanders need to be more empowered to meaningfully respond to local priorities. We also need a clear route of ‘escalation’ between the local and the national level, where local problems cannot be resolved.” 

The SPA’s reference group met for the third time in Edinburgh last week, with their recommendations expected within the next month. O’Neill wants to see new arrangements that will “hand some meaningful control over policing back to our communities”. Perception will be just as important as the substance, though.

After all, the SPA’s own reputation is at stake here too. UNISON Scotland’s own submission to the review claims the authority “appears to be not much more than a ‘rubber stamp’ endorser of police projects” when big-ticket items are meant to be scrutinised. Time will tell whether the SPA’s governance review will manage to appease its critics. 

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