Five years on: Time to pull Scottish policing out of the shadows

It is past time to loosen the grip of police bosses and government ministers and pull Scottish policing out of the shadows.

By Liam McArthur Apr 06, 2018 3

Scottish policing has not scored well on the Bartonmeter.

Holyrood was recently taken aback by the refreshing honesty of the Durham Chief Constable, Mike Barton. In giving evidence to the Parliament's Justice Committee on his investigation into the national force spying illegally, he showed what our system has been missing for the past five years.

He accused Police Scotland of ineptitude and warned of a culture of secrecy. He offered sensible critiques and didn’t mince his words.

It was the type of critical assessment that we simply do not get when the Scottish Government and the Scottish Police Authority – appointees of the Justice Secretary – are left to mark their own homework.

So why is there no place for alternative, independent, expert perspectives? For that, we need to go back to the roots of centralisation.

The centralisation of Scotland’s police services was one of the largest mergers in public sector history and SNP ministers were certain that they knew best. They promised the moon. Time and again they told Parliament and the public that their reforms would heap rewards on policing. Little of this has materialised.

But with almost everyone who is anyone now being appointed by the Justice Secretary, who is going to speak out? Who would ever say that their organisation or department is performing badly? Few, if any, have scored well on the Bartonmeter as the measure of openness.

"…the recommendations set out in this report will go a long way to resolving the issues and concerns raised". That was the last SPA Chair, Andrew Flanagan, speaking two years ago, after the Justice Secretary asked him to conduct a review to get the police back on track.

Eighteen months on, he left under a huge black cloud. Problem after problem had forced his resignation and the SPA’s reputation was dragged through the mud. Again.

The Justice Secretary response to that? Ask his deputy at the SPA to lead a fresh review.

I don’t doubt the objectivity of her co-chair, but surely there is a significant risk of dilution of one of the authors of a report on an organisation sits at its top table.

A month after publishing, she has gone too.

After half a decade of Police Scotland, the SNP need to have honest conversations about where they have gone wrong.

We have seen before the difference that such a change of heart can make.

I dread to think what might have happened had the Government turned down our call to press pause on its plans to abolish corroboration and not let Lord Bonomy's Commission do its work.

Remember the scandal of industrial scale stop and search? Without Liberal Democrat campaigning and a hefty Commission led by John Scott QC, we could still be seeing people being stopped illegally hundreds of thousands of times a year.

This is the kind of reset that Police Scotland needs.  If only SNP ministers could bring themselves to admit it.

We don’t need to look far to see the cobwebs that an independent examination and investigation could dust down. Localism, democracy and transparency need to be injected back into the system.

And the national force still has to get to grips with ageing IT, its finances persistently being in the red and the British Transport Police - another botched merger in the making. Unless there is change now, all the evidence tells us that the system cannot be trusted to make the right decisions.

It cannot be left to the same old faces to trot out the same old excuses and paper over the cracks. That path will only lead to our failing the police officers and staff who work incredibly hard, day-in day-out, to protect our communities.

It is past time to loosen the grip of police bosses and government ministers and pull Scottish policing out of the shadows. The Justice Secretary has no excuse but to accept our request for an independent review.


Originally printed in the Scotland on Sunday on 1st April 2018.

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