Earlier this week, the growing storm around the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) leadership blew up in a series of events that defied irony.
Having moved to restrict press access to SPA public board papers for fear of negative publicity and reputational damage, the same organization was then wrong-footed by the leaking of an HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS) inspection report on SPA transparency and accountability. The Inspectorate reported on a range of concerns, including a lack of consultation with stakeholders, and a dysfunctional relationship between the Chair, Andrew Flanagan, and CEO, John Foley. In an ill-tempered statement, the (recently resigned but-still-in-post) Chair then fired various red herrings at the Inspectorate, denying various accusations that, in fact, hadn’t been made.
The fact that the Andrew Flanagan is the second Chair to resign in four years is indicative of an underlying problem. For all its flaws, this problem arguably lies not wholly with the SPA, but also with the degree of power that now resides with Scottish Ministers, by dint of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012.
By way of a brief guide to the current set-up, Scottish Government ministers set the strategic priorities for the police service, the Justice Secretary appoints the Chair of the Scottish Police Authority and Scottish Ministers have the capacity to influence the final composition of the Board. Scottish Ministers also have the power to give directions to the Board, so long as they do not interfere with police operations. Added to this, the strategic police plan must be submitted to Scottish Ministers, and the SPA must ‘use its best endeavours to secure their approval of the plan.’ In short, reform has rendered the Scottish Government an exceptionally powerful player. By the same hand, reform has also politicised Scottish policing, bringing reputational considerations to the fore.
These political dynamics appear to be writ large on the reticent operation of the SPA. For a body charged with the scrutiny and oversight of Scottish policing, the SPA has gone to considerable lengths to manage bad news in ways that a) directly contradict its own role and b) suggest at least some degree of government influence, be it direct or indirect. As ex-board member Moi Ali put it:
A body that is meant to shine a light on policing matters has been found to be actively trying to prevent issues being scrutinised and ‘played out in the media’
Earlier in the week, a sharply observed press query by Sun journalist Chris Musson on the costs of police car repairs prompted the SPA to impose an embargo on publicly available board meeting papers. As Musson pointed out, the response was clearly farcical, given the information was already online. The larger issue is that the media are asking questions that SPA board members should be asking. The CEO’s subservient and passively supportive position on the government’s controversial proposal to integrate British Transport Police into Police Scotland is another case in point.
The politicisation of Scottish policing – and related publicity – is clearly a massive inconvenience for the major players: Police Scotland, the SPA and the Scottish Government. For Scotland’s communities, the picture is perhaps more nuanced. Politicisation means contestation, awkward questions and different points of view which is no bad thing in an advanced democracy. It means policies and practices that previously passed without notice are now open to question, and that Chief officers are increasingly held to account. The drawback is that political reputations and bad news management tend to prevail over substantive issues, as demonstrated by the SPA’s apprehensive approach to governance, as well as the long overdue publication of Police Scotland’s ten-year strategy.
How then does the SPA assert its authority? The obvious conclusion is to weaken its ties to the Scottish Government, as suggested by former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. The SPA should be made accountable to the Scottish Parliament, not to Ministers, and the appointment of the Chair and Board made subject to cross-party approval. Taking the politics out policing appointments, as it were, and allowing the Authority to act as a buffer between Ministers and the single service, as originally intended.