SCOTLAND'S main police watchdog is to test whether the chief constable should have the power to make unilateral decisions on such issues as armed policing and stop and search.

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) will investigate the exact terms of the "operational independence" that Sir Stephen House has used to push through controversial decisions, such as the greater visibility of armed officers.

Sir Stephen has cited such independence as a key defence from political interference on how he carries out his job. But the SPA's chairman, Vic Emery, has confirmed he was not consulted on armed policing before changes were made.

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Speaking before Holyrood's Justice Sub-Committee on policing, Mr Emery said: "We would like to do a piece of work on that to see what operational decisions we need to be involved in, and which ones we do not."

The former shipyard executive - who has security clearance to review decisions on sensitive issues such as arms - had been challenged by Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes and Labour's Graeme Pearson on what exactly constituted operational independence for the force.

Mr Emery said it was not clear in the Act that created the new single force whether the chief constable was expected to simply account for his actions after the fact - or consult with the SPA before he made a decision.

He said: "We need to move on to a situation where we are consulted in advance of policy decisions being made, rather than simply scrutinising those decisions after the fact, and I acknowledge that."

He added: "We have had a growing improvement in our relationship with the police and this is a matter of persuading the police that they need to come forward and consult with the board, particularly on how decisions are communicated among the community before those decisions are made.

"We are maturing that relationship. We need to mature that because the Act can be literally interpreted as being a scrutiny after the fact, and that is not a satisfactory situation."

Ms McInnes, speaking after the committee met, said: "Vic Emery today confirmed our primary concern that this was a unilateral decision taken by the Chief Constable House without any consultation or consideration of the specific needs of local communities.

"The SNP promised us that their centralisation plans wouldn't result in significant changes to policing being imposed upon local communities from a distant HQ.

"The SPA were not able to carry out any review of the risks because effectively they were cut out of the decision by the chief constable's deployment of those two little words 'operational independence'.

"There is no legal definition of operational independence, and what is becoming clearer by the week is that those two little words are being used to stifle legitimate debate, and that they discourage the SPA from carrying out their proper scrutiny role."

The SPA and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary are currently reviewing armed policing under Police Scotland.Decisions were made to have a standing authority for firearms officers to have their guns in holsters under the previous forces. They were then mobilised to carry out some routine work under the national force. However, the twin retrospective reviews are to establish exact timings of these decisions.

Mr Pearson was not impressed by evidence to the committee. He said: "The evidence reflected an alarming complacency on the part of those with the duty to hold the chief constable to account namely the SPA and HMIC."

Convener Christine Grahame, of the SNP, sounded a note of warning on operational independence: "I would be concerned if the SPA interfered too much. There is a difficult balance to maintain."