The merger of our eight police forces into a single Police Service of Scotland has the potential not only to reduce cost but also to be more accountable to local communities with a commander for each council area answerable to a committee appointed by the local authority.
The matter of how effectively the new force and its chief constable will be held to account is less clear. The proposal in the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill, now going through the Scottish Parliament, is for the new national force to be overseen by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). Its members will no doubt be chosen to represent the wider community geographically and demographically, taking relevant experience into account. But, because they will be appointed by the Justice Secretary, there is a danger they will not be fully independent. Scotland's Auditor General has identified this as a democratic deficit and police officers at every level have also raised concerns.
A potential solution has been proposed by Labour MSP Graeme Pearson. As the former head of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, he has first hand experience of the operational side of a national police body but as a board member overseeing the National Criminal Intelligence Service, his warning that such bodies risk making targets and budgets their priorities ahead of strategic planning for policing should be heeded.
He suggests that a police commission, separate from the police authority and comprising MSPs, should be established to ensure accountability over big decisions. This would have the merit of being democratic as MSPs are elected representatives and, if the members of the commission were elected by the Parliament, they would not be beholden to the Justice Secretary. The disadvantage would be that two bodies would add to bureaucracy and possibly cause confusion over roles. One strong, independent body would be preferable.
There must be clear operational separation between the Scottish Government and the chief constable of the new national police force (and the chief officer of the new national fire service). Both appointments will be made soon and, with only 10 months before the new services become operational, the key issue of accountability must be addressed.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill says there will be no political interference in the SPA. However scrupulous he is in ensuring that is so in his term of office, his task in piloting the Bill to put the new system in place is to ensure that transparency and democratic accountability are built in from the start, to endure.
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