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by Margaret Taylor
25 March 2024
Audrey Nicoll: 'We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t sometimes criticise government'

Audrey Nicoll | Alamy

Audrey Nicoll: 'We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t sometimes criticise government'

Audrey Nicoll never planned on becoming a politician, and certainly not an SNP one.

Having grown up in the Midstocket area of Aberdeen in the early days of the oil boom, Nicoll’s first brush with politics came from listening to her parents air their views. It was a politically engaged, if not politically active, household and, with her mum working alongside her dad in the family greengrocery, Conservative values were the order of the day.

“Politics wasn’t something I was interested in then [but] I was probably an unconscious Tory,” Nicoll says. “My thinking was very much shaped by my parents, that sort of view that if you work hard you’ll be rewarded.”

It wasn’t until 2014, while serving as a detective sergeant in Police Scotland, that Nicoll took an active interest in politics herself, with the independence referendum awakening something she wasn’t aware she had in her. “That was a turning point for a lot of people,” she says. “For me, I didn’t see it coming but I found myself quite impacted by the result of the referendum. What had been a passing interest became strong.” 

Her job in the police prevented her from taking a frontline role in politics but in 2019, after leaving the service, she stood for elected office, first winning a by-election to join her husband Alex in Aberdeen City Council’s SNP group then going on to successfully contest the Aberdeen South and North Kincardine seat in the Holyrood election two years later.

“For me the big step into politics came in 2019 when I stood in a council by-election and surprisingly won it,” Nicoll says. “I wouldn’t have stood if I hadn’t been encouraged at that point, but I was reassured that colleagues felt it was a role I could take on.

“As time went on, I did grow in confidence in my role as a councillor. As we were moving towards the Holyrood election, I found myself having conversations with colleagues in the party [about standing]. For me it was a big decision. I’m older and I was actually thinking about retiring. It’s a huge and different world, but I took a sharp intake of breath and decided that I would do it. I felt comfortable enough standing and was very open-minded about whether I would be elected or not because I hadn’t been in that world of politics for very long.”

Nicoll arriving at Holyrood for the first time after being elected in 2021 | Alamy

Though still a relative newbie, Nicoll has made her mark in the parliament since gaining her seat, repeatedly holding the government her party leads to account through her role as convener of the Criminal Justice Committee. Last year, for example, she led a committee report that called for the government to be realistic about the costs involved in replacing young-offenders institutions with care-based alternatives.

She was also scathing about the government’s draft proposals for a National Care Service, noting after the committee completed its stage one scrutiny of the plan that she and her colleagues had “extensive concerns” about the inclusion of criminal justice social work. “The lack of information on the impact or merits of incorporating criminal justice social work into the National Care Service is concerning,” she said at the time. “The positive case for this move has not been made and so we are not convinced of its merits at this stage.”

Nicoll is entirely comfortable issuing such statements, noting that she sees the committee’s job as being “a critical friend to the government”. “We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t sometimes criticise government,” she adds. 

The committee has its work cut out for it this year, though, having recently retired to consider its report into the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. The purpose of the bill seems straightforward enough: to “improve the experience of victims and witnesses in the justice system” and to “try to improve the fairness, clarity and transparency of the framework within which decisions in criminal cases are made”. How the government has proposed getting there has been highly controversial though, with plans to scrap the not-proven verdict, reduce jury sizes, and run a pilot of judge-only trials for sexual offences cases leading to much consternation and debate. It is up to the Criminal Justice Committee to suggest how best to proceed.

Politics wasn’t something I was interested in – I was probably an unconscious Tory

Yet while the government has already come in for widespread condemnation for the juryless trials plan in particular, Nicoll has won admiration for how the committee has handled its scrutiny of the bill. Witnesses with widely divergent views, and some with vulnerabilities, have been given the space to put those views across and Nicoll has set the tone of the evidence sessions with her calm and forensic questioning. Though she says she was surprised when she was appointed to the role, Nicoll concedes that her background in the police, where she latterly specialised in public protection work, has helped her get a handle on the work.

“In the latter half of my police career I had a strong interest in the investigative process around complex and serious public protection crimes,” she says. “That could be around child protection or sexual offences and latterly policing was beginning to have more of a role responding to concerns around highly vulnerable adults. That was a fulfilling but quite intense role. Towards the latter end of my service, all police forces were developing the way they investigated higher-tariff domestic abuse cases, in particular cases where you had a repeat offender. There was some really fantastic work done by some really committed officers. A lot of excellent work was done in recognition of the scale of domestic abuse and the hidden nature of domestic abuse.”

Having studied computer science and political economy at university, Nicoll initially started out working in computer programming. She didn’t find the work stimulating, though, and after three years decided to join the police because she’d “always had an interest in that sort of romantic notion of doing something that’s more worthwhile, that’s helping people”. She was in the service from 1984 until 2016, remaining long enough to live through the 2013 multi-force merger that created Police Scotland. Though she says that ultimately she feels the merger – which was overseen by the SNP government’s then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill – was a good idea, Nicoll says it was not an easy time to be part of the police.

Nicoll during her policing days with her son, Sam

“I was ready to leave in 2016,” she says. “I was in a fantastic role as part of a specialist crime division and it was a privilege to be part of that, but looking back the move to Police Scotland was quite a big transition for everybody. My approach to life is quite relaxed in some ways and we hadn’t been through anything like that before so I just went with it, but certainly it was an unsettling time for many people. It took a long time to bed down and there were some really big organisational changes. Grampian Police had historically become very proficient at dealing with offshore incidents such as an unexpected death on an oil rig or a suspected drug offence or a major incident like a shutdown. When we became Police Scotland, instead of local decision-making everything migrated to the central belt. There was a lot of pushback on that and a feeling that the status quo whereby local decision-making worked really well should remain. 

“Those were things that ironed themselves out over time. My own view at the time was that it was the right thing to do. I felt I agreed with the view that the cost of having eight individual police forces was difficult to justify. There were a lot of varied practices and there was a reasonable case to make that a national approach around things like procurement – buying a fleet of vehicles – made more sense, especially in a difficult economic climate. But you were gaining something and losing something else. That was where we found ourselves.”

When she first retired from the service Nicoll went to work in the school of nursing at Robert Gordon University, helping educate future health professionals on “the growing link and interest between policing and public health”.

“One of the things I was aware of was the growing role of police officers in responding to people in communities,” she says. “One of the drivers of that possibly was the change to mental health legislation in the early 2000s, when people who would previously have been placed in a mental health setting were being supported in the community. I think the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act of 2003 underpinned that shift, but what came from that was a growing role for the police in responding to people who were unwell. We weren’t prepared for that. I’d go as far as to say that there’s still work to be done to make that better and that’s been a piece of work that the committee has been doing.”

At the heart of this is improving people’s experience of the justice system

It is also something Nicoll saw from another angle when she did enter politics. When she won the Torry/Ferryhill by-election in late 2019 the country was just a few months away from entering its first coronavirus lockdown. While that meant Nicoll never really got to experience the notorious ‘bearpit’ chamber at Aberdeen Town House, it also meant the kind of work she did to support constituents quickly changed. 

“I had a constituent who rang me on my council phone every day at 2pm to talk about his concerns about the pandemic,” she says. “That was fine, I was happy to reassure him and have a wee chat with him. It was every single day. He’d share a couple of thoughts, told me what he had done that morning and what he thought about how the Scottish Government could deal with the pandemic. If that gave him some reassurance that was fine by me.

“I had one other constituent who was a veteran and was struggling with lockdown because he lived in a block of flats and the confines of lockdown meant he was surrounded by more noise than normal coming from the other flats. He found that very difficult to manage. I got to a point where I was extremely worried for him. I did a lot of work around that case and I was really pleased he was able, after quite a lot of work, to move house. It was a positive outcome.”

Though it is coming up to a decade since she left the police, policing has never been far away from the work Nicoll has done since. Now the Criminal Justice Committee has finished taking evidence on the victims and witnesses legislation it is moving on to look at the Police (Ethics, Conduct and Scrutiny) Bill. Trust in the police has come into sharp focus in recent weeks following the eventual conviction of Iain Packer for the 2005 murder of Emma Caldwell, and while the bill doesn’t deal with that case specifically, the failings it highlighted mean it is likely the committee’s scrutiny sessions will be just as closely watched as their victims and witnesses ones were.

“A key objective of that bill will be to strengthen public confidence in policing in Scotland,” Nicoll says. “It will look at the process of investigations into misconduct by officers and staff – the bill is seeking to make that more effective. Thinking back to my own policing career there were certainly areas of practice that were questionable. If we think of how society has changed and our expectations around the conduct of people in positions of trust – for example, if you retired you could effectively walk away from disciplinary action – it’s right for that to be scrutinised.”

Nicoll with husband Alex and son Sam after being elected to Aberdeen City Council

In the meantime, the committee’s report on the victims and witnesses bill is imminent. When we speak Nicoll is still not clear on what she feels it should ultimately recommend, though she stresses that she is “supportive of any approach that is looking to improve the experience that in the main women have”. 

“I’m supportive of many of the provisions of the bill,” she says. “I think the spirit of them makes sense but I really do recognise, and I think all members of the committee recognise, that some of the provisions are more controversial than others and will need very careful consideration. The proposal for a victims’ commissioner is one. On the face of it that seems like a reasonable provision but some of the evidence that we’re heard suggests that perhaps we don’t need a commissioner and I’m finding myself understanding why people have that view. There are resource implications and do we really need one when representative organisations have good relationships with parliamentarians and government? I suppose I hadn’t really thought of those arguments but they do make sense to me.”

The bill is massive in its scope and would, like the Police Scotland merger before it, lead to wholesale change in the justice sector if implemented as drafted. Yet it is the judge-only trials provision it has become known for and will also be remembered for. Getting the committee’s recommendation on that provision, in particular, right is not something Nicoll is weighing lightly.

“We’ve taken a really big volume of evidence and I think all members, including myself, are still in our own minds thinking about what we’ve heard and coming to a decision in our own heads about where we might land with that provision,” she says. “It’s not a straightforward process for us. it would be naïve to say otherwise. At the heart of this is improving people’s experience of the justice system though. What we absolutely don’t want to do is pass legislation that doesn’t make that improvement happen.” 

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