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We are at the beginning of a new era of accountability for the police

YOU have aired comments from a number of quarters within policing and the criminal justice system in recent days raising concerns about the imminent threat of politicisation of the police service "New police force in turf war over backroom staff", The Herald, November 9, and Letters, November 10).

Some of those comments suggest the chief constable will not have enough powers and some that he will have too much. With the election in England this week of the first police and crime commissioners we will no doubt see similar concerns about this vague phrase "operational independence".

As one of 13 individuals in the Scottish Police Authority now tasked with the maintenance, governance and accountability of policing, I am concerned by some of the assumptions that seem to lie behind these assertions. I am puzzled by the suggestion that we are entering a more political environment around policing than we have had in the past. At the moment every police authority or joint board is made up of politicians. In contrast the majority of members of the new authority have no association with party politics of any kind and those that do represent every mainstream political viewpoint in Scotland. It is the authority that has been given the oversight of Scottish policing and the respective roles of authority and Scottish Government are clearly set out in the Police and Fire (Scotland) Reform Act 2012. This Act reboots the governance of Scottish policing as well as the structure of Scottish policing. It does that because a number of independent studies, not least the Accounts Commission report in September, have highlighted an unacceptable degree of patchy oversight and engagement in robust governance. That does not seem well understood from the comments of the last week. I like a plan to follow. The legislation provides us with that plan and that is what is guiding us as an authority.

Over the next few weeks I would urge all those with concerns over supposed politicisation or allegedly undermined operational independence to join us in understanding the detailed implications of the Act. If we can work together to clear up misunderstanding and misconceptions about governance then I believe that will stand us in good stead for the future.

I do not believe we are on the cusp of politicising the police. I believe we are at the beginning of a new era of accountability; one in which the police will be able to better focus on the policing of Scotland, and the people of Scotland will have a genuine stake in the priorities set for the service and a better understanding of how well it performs in meeting them.

Vic Emery OBE,

Chairman, Scottish Police Authority,

Tulliallan Castle, Kincardine.

VIC EMERY is right to think that "conventional arrangements whereby all support functions and staff are automatically within the direction of the chief constable require to be considered differently". The only point on which I might differ from him is that these arrangements are barely conventional: they date back only to 1996. When the regional councils were the police authorities, control of the support functions was shared between the police and the councils. It was the abolition of the regions and the establishment of joint boards which saw the chief constables take exclusive control.

The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents and the Scottish Police Federation evidently think that the SPA should be no more than a watchdog. It is time they had another look at the Act passed in June this year which established it.

They will be interested to find in Section 3 that the authority "may provide and maintain anything necessary or desirable for the carrying out of police functions, including vehicles, equipment, information technology systems, land, buildings, and other structures"; and that it "must, before the beginning of each financial year, provide to the chief constable details of how it intends to allocate the financial resources it expects to have available to it in respect of that financial year." The authority is required to consult the chief constable about these matters and it may choose to delegate all or some of its executive functions to him; but there is nothing in the act which says it must do so.

A watchdog is a noisy beast that is kept chained up and allowed to bark but not to bite. That was never intended to be the role of the SPA. For all its faults the Act confirmed the long-established basic structure for the management and control of the police service in Scotland. In most matters the chief constable is guaranteed independence in his direction of police work and in that respect is not to be subject to the direction of the authority or government ministers; the police authority provides the wherewithal; and the Government and Parliament set the policy, financial, and legislative framework.

MSPs should focus their energies on upholding that framework. The first threat to it has come from the police themselves. It is deeply worrying that the superintendents and the federation think they can scare off the authority by stirring up a populist scare about political interference, for which there is at the moment no basis in fact.

Dr Christopher Mason MBE, (former member of the Strathclyde Police authority 1982 – 1996 and 2003 – 2012),

25 Braidholm Road,

Giffnock.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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