Who will run Scotland's new single police force when it goes live next April?
That is the question that lies behind what appears to be a rather unseemly tug-of-war between Steve House, the man chosen to be the Police Service of Scotland's (PSS) first chief constable, and Vic Emery, chairman of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). Now both men have been summoned to appear together before the Holyrood Justice Committee.
Tensions between the two emerged within 24 hours of the appointment of Mr House to the most important job in British policing outside London. A fortnight ago, The Herald reported that Mr House was said to be "spitting nails" at an apparent bid by the SPA to take over various back-office functions. These include responsibility for human resources, the finance department, corporate services and public relations.
Alarm bells began to ring. The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents warned of the risk of the PSS being "subservient" to the SPA, whose members will be paid by the Scottish Government. They argue that handing control of administrative functions to the SPA would tie the chief constable's hands operationally.
Chief constables have traditionally dealt with politicians at arm's length but this looked like the thin end of a wedge that could end with the politicisation of policing.
Why has it taken so long to tackle this issue, when the damaging disagreements between these two men have been widely reported?
The PSS begins operations in barely four months. Confusion about control of the administrative levers has meant it has been impossible to advertise key posts, such as the new body's finance director.
The Holyrood committee system is in the dock for failing to hold the executive to account through pre- and post-legislative scrutiny of legislation. Is this another example of inadequate legislation that fails to delineate specific functions?
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has had ample opportunity to allay fears about operational interference. Instead he issued a bland statement about how the two would "work together to ensure a smooth transition into a new Police Service of Scotland we can be proud of".
The Herald supported the creation of the unified service, provided its operational independence could be guaranteed and local policing priorities respected. The current structure of eight regional forces, in which one – Strathclyde – covers nearly half of Scotland makes little sense. There is scope for removing bureaucratic duplication and tackling more effectively areas of crime that operate across regional borders, such as terrorism and human trafficking.
The function of the SPA should be to set strategic objectives, scrutinise the PSS and monitor its effectiveness. How can it do that job effectively if it is running or controlling some of its functions?
Scots have looked askance this week at the tussles between some English chief constables and their newly elected police and crime commissioners. Yet, in Scotland too, the argument about the politicisation of policing seems far from settled. There is an urgent need for clarity on this vital issue.
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