Police Scotland and failing parliamentary oversight

Concerns have recently resurfaced about how power is wielded in the Scottish Parliament, prompting calls for reform.

MSPs acting as Ministerial Aides (Parliamentary Liaison Officers) were, across every policy brief, sitting on the very committees that are supposed to hold their respective Ministers to account – until the First Minister backed down and reluctantly removed them.

There is also disquiet around the capacity of MSPs to scrutinise and revise the volume of legislation passing through Holyrood, as well as party influence on purportedly independent committees. As Green co-convenor Patrick Harvie states:

‘There is a culture of absolute whipping which our committees were not intended to develop. The large majority of votes are in the bag before ministers even open their mouths. Committee reports split down party lines.’

Police reform and parliamentary scrutiny

The birth of Police Scotland should have sounded warning bells already. For, looking back at the passage of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament, at least some of the difficulties that have since beset Police Scotland might reasonably be allied to the Scottish political system.

To begin, there is the speed with which the legislation whisked through. As one would expect, this was a hefty Bill. Part one, on police reform, comprised 17 chapters and 98 sections.

First introduced in January 2012, the Bill passed in June that year. Whilst work on it, including public consultation, was undertaken in the two-year lead-up period, the pace at which the Bill proceeded through the Scottish Parliament was nothing short of extraordinary. A parliamentary briefing explains:

‘This Bill represented the most significant public service reform since devolution and, in the case of the police service, the most significant change in living memory. Nevertheless, the Bill completed all three parliamentary stages in four months.’

Detailed consideration by the Justice Committee (Stage 2) was undertaken in two three-hour sittings on 29 May and 12 June 2012 respectively. Around six hours to chew over the most significant policing reform in living memory, just slightly longer than a primary school day.

Missed opportunities

Below I’ve flagged up some examples of what might be viewed as missed opportunities, substantive issues that are skirted around and amendments rejected along party lines, often with minimal debate. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it does, I think, at least hint at how things could have turned out differently, with a bit more time and less partisan take on committee business.

  1. The mystery of the missing business case

Viewed as a necessity against a backdrop of Westminster cuts [col. 8772], the main driver for police reform was economic. In 2011, an outline business case (OBC) estimated that a single police force would result in £130 million-worth of savings a year and £1.7 billion-worth of savings over 15 years. So far, so good.

At Stage 1, Justice Committee members sought clarification on the full business case (when would it be available and if the annual budgets would be adjusted accordingly) [p.47]. This sort of detail is important and key to planning ahead. At Stage 2, Conservative MSP John Lamont reminded committee members, the OBC was not intended to set future budgets, nor did it contain sufficient detail on which to base significant decisions about investment and savings [col. 1408]. Here’s Labour’s Graeme Pearson, also at Stage 2, pressing SNP Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, on the full business case. It’s an insightful exchange, if only to illuminate how a question on the very rationale for police reform is side-stepped:

Pearson: The cabinet secretary will remember that, earlier in the bill process, there was an indication from ACPOS [Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland) in that it was working on the full business case and that that would be ready within the month. That period has passed. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that he has a full business case and that it puts him in a more confident position in dealing with the amendments that we are discussing?

MacAskill: We are currently in a confident place with regard to robustness on that specific matter. I will need to check it and return to you, but there is nothing that we are unduly concerned about. We will press on, and we have decided that 1 April 2013 is perfectly realisable.*

Pearson: So you will let us know about the full business case—

MacAskill: I will come back with the information.

Pearson: Whether you have it or otherwise.

MacAskill: I will make inquiries; I cannot confirm that at the moment.

In November 2013, Audit Scotland reported that the recently established single service still lacked a full business case. Thereafter, in a bit of semantic jiggery-pokery, the Scottish Government stated that the term ‘full business case’ was in fact ‘essentially interchangeable with the term ‘financial strategy’, and that all efforts were focused on the latter. Still, there was no sign of either, as four dissenting members of Audit Committee flagged up in May 2014, with a cutting statement on the ongoing financial confusion and scrutiny process to date:

It is not the job of a committee of the Scottish Parliament to seek to put a flattering interpretation on the actions of the Scottish government. For committees to be effective and credible, they need to report what they find, irrespective of any embarrassment to any one political party.

In late 2015, the Auditor General warned that the force faced a potential £85 million funding gap by 2018/19 and that a long-term financial strategy was still not in place.

  1. On political interference

A prescient amendment by Scottish Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesperson Alison MacInnes sought to make the Scottish Parliament responsible for the appointment of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) Chair, rather than Scottish ministers. This, she explained, was in part, a reputational matter:

the public appointments process is a well-regulated mechanism, but the appearance of partiality and political influence remains a possibility. By contrast, the Crown appointments procedure is more robust and demands an extra level of scrutiny, a cross-party appointments panel and ultimately the whole Parliament’s agreement.’[col. 1355]

Responding to Justice Committee members, the Minister maintained that will be ‘plenty of opportunities for Parliament to scrutinise policing’ and the amendment failed. The independence of the Scottish Police Authority, in particular, the uneasy relationship between the SPA and Scottish Government has been repeatedly called into question. In a recent Review of Police Governance, Andrew Flanagan, the SPA Chair, acknowledged ‘The SPA has yet to be seen to be sufficiently separate from Government or to fully establish its role and authority.’

  1. Counting cops

In May 2016, the SNP dropped its long-standing manifesto commitment to maintaining 1,000 more officers than it inherited from the Labour administration. The commitment ran into trouble when it became clear(ish) that a) the number of officers deployed in community facing roles was not being sustained b) as a result of staff cuts, police officers were undertaking civilian staff roles and c) more generally, the target precluded the flexibility required by the force.

One of the more frustrating aspects of this debate has been the lack of information on what Scottish policing actually looks like, for instance, the balance between community and responsive cops and the size of the operational front-line (the sort of detailed data that are readily available in England and Wales). In particular, a lack of data on police staff numbers has stymied debate. Whilst the Scottish Government publish trend data on police force strength on a quarterly basis, no equivalent data are available on police staff.

Amendment 201, put forward by Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald, required SPA annual reports to include the number of police officers and the number of police staff employed in any one year. Macdonald explains:

it would be quite extraordinary if the police authority chose not to include that number in the annual report. To make it a statutory requirement seems to impose no unnecessary burden on anyone but simply to achieve in statute the level of transparency that I think that everyone here would expect in any case. (col. 1410)

The amendment was nonetheless rejected, with an assurance from the Minister that ‘There is no need’, adding that ‘the authority may choose to include such information in its assessment of the performance of the police authority and the police service.’

Extraordinary perhaps, but the SPA did not choose to include the number of police staff in its annual reports. Three years later, Police Scotland published, for the first time, a snapshot of aggregate police staff numbers.

  1. Jobs for the boys

Amendment 180, put forward by Labour MSP Jenny Marra, sought to introduce a quota system for local and national police and fire boards that would ensure that representation was, as a minimum, 40 per cent women. This type of mechanism, Marra noted, worked well in a number of Nordic countries [col. 1364]. The Minister’s response is remarkable. It might be a joke, I’m not sure:

I concur with Jenny Marra’s support for the small independent nations that do so well in the area of gender balance and in a variety of other ways. I am a big admirer of Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland and I wish that Scotland had the powers to emulate what they do.

Having commented that such a prescription would not be welcomed by local government, he wistfully concludes:

the solution does not lie in the bill. I accept that a solution must be found and I look longingly at the nations to which Ms Marra referred that are doing so much better.

In 2015, the First Minster called on business across Scotland to make the commitment to support equality and work towards achieving a 50/50 gender split on their boards by 2020. The current Scottish Government Cabinet has a 50/50 gender split. Meanwhile, four out of the twelve SPA board members are women.

Measure twice, cut once

Police Scotland’s problems are by no means wholly reducible to parliamentary process. Still, it seems fair to suggest that the manner in which the Bill proceeded through the Scottish Parliament has not helped matters. Rattling along at an extraordinary pace, we see substantive issues dismissed and amendments rejected with minimal debate, often along party lines. The financial case for reform is met with obfuscation, whilst opportunities to improve standards of accountability and to separate the SPA from Ministers are shot down. Meanwhile, gender equality is reduced to a matter of constitutional politics. The fact that each one of these concerns has persisted, well beyond the lifetime of the Bill, reflects badly on the proceedings that established Police Scotland and should add further weight to the growing call for parliamentary reform.

*A later version of events, put forward by the Scottish Government, suggested that converting the ‘very detailed’ OBC (previously described as containing ‘insufficient detail’) ‘would prove an unnecessary distraction during the transition to a single service’

Photo: By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,



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