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Chair of police oversight body is losing sleep over money, not headlines

Chair of police oversight body is losing sleep over money, not headlines

“I think hugging each other doesn’t make [for] good publicity,” quips Vic Emery from across the table. It’s almost twelve months to the day since his appointment as Scottish Police Authority (SPA) chair. And, yet, amidst countless column inches concentrating on so-called ‘power struggles’ between Emery and opposite number, Sir Stephen House, one might be forgiven for forgetting much of that time has been spent delivering the biggest shake-up to Scottish policing ever.

“I think people invented the term power struggle,” he says. “I think it was unfortunate – it doesn’t help in a reform process. I think if you talk to Steve House he will recognise the same thing I do, which is that we get on actually very well. He is a very clever and very professional police officer.

“I appointed him into that role, I chaired the panel that appointed Steve into that role. We are in a start-up situation, we have differences of opinion. You could argue, and I would argue, that you need a constructive tension between the parties to get the best out of the overall arrangement and that has been portrayed as being sort of a personality clash or a power struggle.”

In short, a “difference of opinion” arose as to how certain requirements – finance and IT, for instance – within the £1.1bn budget overseen by the SPA should be discharged.

The civilian body charged with supervising the new single service had retained maintenance functions in the run-up to day one in an effort to avoid “distracting” their counterparts from the not so insignificant task of merging eight forces into one, says Emery. After 1 April, House was handed the reins.

“The long-term aim was we had an open mind,” reiterates Emery. “If you look into the documentation that was agreed during that period, it is always caveated, every document is caveated on the statement, which is, this will be under review at regular periods to make sure that it is still appropriate for moving forward, and that’s what we did.” For Emery, who stresses the authority’s relationship with Police Scotland and the Scottish Government is “building all the time”, it was simply a case of “re-parenting” functions.

“Yes, [I’m] very satisfied with that arrangement. We’re responsible for the complete £1.1 billion budget. Previously, we were holding two people accountable for delivering that. We’re now holding largely one person because 99.5 per cent of the budget is actually under the chief constable so we’re largely holding him accountable for the budget and for delivering the savings. So I am very comfortable. The role of the SPA board has not changed from day one.”

Still, the announcement a little over two months on from day one that control of key departments would transfer to the Police Scotland chief constable never looked like passing without headlines of ‘Sir Stephen wins turf war’. If the former head of Strathclyde Police had been portrayed as “some sort of power-mad cop sitting in a castle” – his assessment in an interview with Holyrood a few weeks ago – then Emery was the wounded civilian told to sit back down behind his desk.

“Well, there are people that characterise it for their own benefits, really,” he says. “I tend to be somewhat immune to a lot of these characterisations because you could lose sleep over it and I don’t intend to. I think we’re doing the right thing, I think we’re doing the right thing for the policing of Scotland, and I think we’re doing the right thing for the people of Scotland. So people trying to say, well, I told you so or there’s a power struggle and there’s a victor at the end, I mean that’s good headlines but it doesn’t actually change the price of bread, really.”

What Emery – previously convener of the authority’s predecessor, the Scottish Police Services Authority (SPSA) – does, however, lose sleep over are budget matters. “I think it’s the single thing that keeps me awake at night,” he admits. Approval of the initial allocation in March saw the SPA and Police Scotland commit to reducing projected expenditure by £64m in year one, though cumulative announced funding reductions associated with police reform sit at £88.2m and £108.7m in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively. “The big worry we have going forward is can we make the savings,” warns Emery.

“This [reform] has been driven largely by the need to make savings; I would argue that it was a good thing to do anyway, notwithstanding that the savings are coming out of it, or should come out of it, but we have to deliver the savings on a three-year programme and in the third year that then needs to be sustained moving forward and, obviously, being resilient to any future budget cuts that might come down as I am sure will be inevitable as we go forward because the economic challenge that we have is not going to go away anytime soon.”

With budgets squeezed for the foreseeable future, Emery is at pains to underline relying on one-off capital savings here and there will not be enough. A review of the police station estate inherited from the eight legacy forces is already under way, though the simultaneous look at front counter opening hours promises a stronger financial dividend.

Dependencies on the likes of sheriff courts and the Crown Office can be considered to help create a “slicker” justice system overall, cites Emery. “Everything we do we need to look at,” he says, emphasising the need to look “much beyond” the three-year horizon currently being negotiated to identify what Scotland wants and needs from their police service moving forward.

Police officer numbers will need to form part of that longer-term conversation, intimates Emery. Today it is out of the question, excluded by the SNP’s commitment to maintain officer numbers at 17,234. Figures released last week show Police Scotland continued to exceed that target three months on from going live, albeit numbers were down 172 between 31 March and 31 June.

Manifesto promises only last the lifetime of a parliament, however, a point Sir Stephen appeared to acknowledge to Holyrood with his “let’s wait and see what happens after the referendum and after 2015” approach.

“We all went into this in the knowledge that 17,234 was a manifesto pledge by the Government that is in power at the moment, so there was never any question in my mind that that was going to change and I don’t see it changing in the foreseeable future,” adds Emery. “It might, I have no crystal ball and I’ve got no insider knowledge. But the savings have to be made notwithstanding that that number is sitting out there.

“Now, as it becomes more and more challenging as time goes on, you need to look at all of the influencing factors that cause us to be where we are. And, in any case, as I’ve said, one of the strategic things we’re thinking about is where do we want to be and what do we want to do and therefore, what is core policing roles that we need and therefore, how do we man those up.

"So way down the road one of the outcomes will be, well, how many police do we actually need at the end, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that right now and for the next little while, we’ve got 17,234 and that was one of the rules of engagement going into this.”

Given the constraint placed on the authority, is he optimistic then that balancing the books in the next couple of years can be achieved? “I am always optimistic, I am optimistic by nature. But there are some challenges which need to be faced and some of those challenges can only be addressed by reforming what we do, not simply cutting corners.

“We have to look at how we do things, do we do things differently. John [McCroskie, interim head of communications and engagement] has already touched on the fact that we’ve got something like ten control rooms and we only need probably three going forward. You then need to extend that discussion and say, well, how many do fire have, is there any mileage, and maybe no, maybe the answer is no, is there any mileage in saying could we not join forces with fire and make it even more best value and what savings does that then give us.”

A new ICT integration project rubberstamped in recent months – “probably the largest expenditure we will approve and has been approved over the last few years” – has been hailed by Emery as a “key enabler” of the comprehensive change he’s calling for.

Confirmation that i6 will cost in the region of five times an initial government projection of £12m was of no surprise to the SPA, however, whose predecessor warned long before the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill passed through parliament that the figure was far too ambitious. “It was a bit light,” retorts the authority chair.

An Audit Scotland report assessing planning and early implementation of new arrangements for police services will no doubt raise the issue of ICT when published in two months time, while the timing of appointments – a frustration shared by Emery and House – is likely to attract criticism. Insufficient due diligence with local authorities was carried out to consider liabilities that would be inherited as well as assets taken on and how they will be transferred, adds the SPA chair.

Closer to home, Emery has had to deal with the loss of a chief executive and two senior directors, a development he claims has been “sensationalised”. Andrea Quinn’s exit as interim chief executive was never in any doubt, he insists, with her departure this month agreed seven months earlier.

Her replacement, John Foley – who has also been recruited on an interim basis – started last week, though Emery tells Holyrood he expects to advertise for a permanent position before the end of the year once governance and scrutiny arrangements are established. Until those structures are in place, SPA will continue to operate without permanent appointments being made.

“I think it has been quite settled,” says Emery. “We’re not resourced properly, the SPA [executive] needs to be properly resourced. And once that’s done it will be settled. I think the relationship things are all settling down, I think the raison d’être for each part of the organisation is now being resolved and settling down so I think we’ve had a quasi-settling down over the last little while and I think that will get better. But we can’t take our eye off the money.”

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