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Head of police watchdog hits back at critics of appointment

Exclusive: Bill Skelly, the head of the new police watchdog HM Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland, has barely been in the post for a fortnight but has already faced criticism of his appointment from the people he is supposed to be monitoring.

When this inspector calls, you know it is going to be controversial.

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Bill Skelly, the head of the new police watchdog HM Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland, has barely been in the post for a fortnight but has already faced criticism of his appointment from the people he is supposed to be monitoring.

On Saturday, The Herald revealed chief constables and police boards had written to Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill expressing their concern at their new inspector.

Their fear is not with the personality but at Mr Skelly's level of experience and what lies behind the Government's decision to appoint him head of the inspectorate but not with the title of "chief inspector".

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Mr Skelly is not a former chief constable. He was previously an assistant chief constable with Lothian and Borders Police.

Mr Skelly appears unfazed.

"Those with an issue with what the Government has decided to do are going to have to get over it," he says. "Like Spartacus I have backed myself against the cliff and killed the horse before the battle. Lothian and Borders has filled my post, I can't go back, only forward. I have got the royal warrant and the legislation behind me.

"Government pays my salary and can instruct me to inquire into certain aspects of policing, but my independence comes from that bit of paper from the Queen. I am not beholden to chief constables, nor the Government, and that is the strength of this appointment. I am clear on that."

He is keen to point out that in the 150 years of the inspectorate, those taking the role have not always been drawn from the chief constable ranks.

He also argues that as an "aspiring chief constable" rather than a retiring one, he has more of a vested interest in improving the future service he will inherit. Traditionally the chief inspector has, like his predecessor, been a retired chief constable.

"What I am not doing is telling chief constables how to run their forces from the point of view that I know better than they do," he says. "I am not above them. I'm amongst them and to recognise that, rather than appointing me chief inspector, I am inspector of constabulary at the rank of chief constable."

He also wants to see greater use of civilians in the service and is supportive of the civilian police community support officers (PCSOs) and wants to see less use of short-term prison sentences.

"The police service in Scotland has completely missed a trick on PCSOs," he explains. "What the public want is to have their problems dealt with and listened to. They may not want the person arrested.

People are coming out of short prison sentences worse than they went in. Communities want respite, but surely they would prefer a longer term solution to locking someone up for a couple of months?

"Restorative justice may be more effective than punitive justice. If the problem is kids knocking down a washing line surely it is better to speak to them, to the school and the parents. It does not need to be police officers who handle this. They are an expensive commodity."

Also controversial are his views on the beleaguered Scottish Police Service Authority - he believes it should no longer oversee the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA).

"I don't think anyone now believes the SCDEA should stay within SPSA. The question is how do we improve on where we are now? One solution might be to re-configure the SCDEA, another would be forces working together more.

"Ultimately for me, the most important questions are: how does this make things better for victims and how does it make Scotland safer?

"We could make Scotland safer but still treat victims badly. I want to improve how the service treats victims. There is still too wide a gap about what the public feel about the police before and after they come out to attend an incident.

"We need to change the traditional approach to the police emphasis being about catching the bad guy and locking him up."

The role of the inspectorate Established by the Police (Scotland) Act of 1857, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary For Scotland (HMICS) is responsible for inspecting the eight Scottish police forces and giving advice to ministers on policing. Recent holders of the chief inspector post include Paddy Tomkins, former chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, and Andrew Brown, the former chief constable of Grampian. Mr Brown's predecessor was Sir Roy Cameron, also a former chief constable of Lothian and Borders. Mr Tomkins courted controversy in the role by calling for Scotland's eight police forces to be amalgamated into one. He also criticised the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos) for a lack of "accountability". The inspectorate operates independently of forces, police boards and the Government and is expected to improve services and highlight weaknesses. In recent years it has driven through changes to the way crime statistics are recorded, improvements in firearms and public order organisation and moves to tackle complex fraud on a national basis.

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