Can you imagine the outcry if Westminster decided to reserve, or return to the Commons, one of Holyrood’s largest expenditure powers?
Such a reversal would generate plenty of coverage in the press, and a great deal of public debate, especially if it was implemented without any justification or explanation and largely due to the fact that MPs didn’t really think MSPs were up to the job?
A similar change is underway right now in Scotland, but because the key relationship is between Holyrood and our councils, rather than Westminster and Holyrood, it is going virtually unnoticed.
The Police and Fire (Reform) Bill seeks to create a single police force in Scotland, replacing the current eight on the basis of saving money. While there are arguments about the likelihood of any savings actually materialising, the bill also removes policing as a local government function.
No longer will our local councils contribute towards the cost of policing and no longer will our councillors be responsible for holding chief constables to account. Instead, everything will be centralised through the Scottish government and an unelected, appointed quango, representing no-one, will hold the police to account.
There is no explanation or justification given for removing the role local authorities currently play, and could continue to play under a single force. Indeed the bill’s policy memorandum even states that “most policing and fire and rescues services are delivered locally”. Yet, despite this admission the bill dramatically reduces the role played by our councils – why?
I gave evidence to the justice committee at the Scottish Parliament this week on behalf of Reform Scotland, explaining our concerns about this dilution of local accountability. At one point, when I was being asked about the expertise and skills necessary to hold the police to account that could be found through appointing a new quango, I asked the committee whether they though our current councillors did not have the skills and expertise necessary.
The answer was yes. (The official report can be viewed here.) That is an argument against democratic accountability. If elected individuals are not as good as experts, then why not pack up the Scottish Parliament and have some ‘experts’ running Scotland?
The answer also ignores the fact that locally-elected individuals represent local communities.
No matter the skills or expertise of centrally appointed quango members, they do not, and cannot, represent the views of the public better than elected individuals. Experts can always give advice and support, but directly elected individuals ensure that there is accountability back to us, the taxpayers.
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One of my fellow panellists also highlighted that the different needs and priorities of different communities mean they often require different styles of policing. This need for flexibility and diversity requires councils to have a direct input into policing, not to the operational issues which are rightly a matter only for the police, but as to the priorities and problems of their area.
Equally, particularly at the moment when budgets are tight, some councils may feel that they would rather spend less on the police and more on linked crime prevention issues, such as social work or housing, and they need the ability to do so.
Of course, some may argue that policing should be centralised and be a Holyrood, rather than council, responsibility. Whilst I would disagree, at least there is then an open and honest debate about the role local authorities play in policing, rather than taking powers from local government by stealth.
That debate goes further. We are only a couple of months from elections to our local councils. For the first time since devolution the election will not be held on the same day as a Holyrood election, in the hope that the debate will focus on local government issues.
Political parties should start being honest and tell us if they want to remove further functions from local authorities and have an honest, open debate about what we want our councils to do.