A WATCHDOG changed its report into police officers carrying guns after getting repeated “feedback” from the Scottish Government.

Emails reveal that the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) altered its firearms report after civil service comments about its “tone” and “substance”.

Police Scotland was heavily criticised in 2014 after it emerged that the force was allowing officers to carry guns on routine patrols. The policy was pushed through without any public consultation and triggered months of negative headlines.

The SPA, set up to hold the chief constable to account and funded by ministers, launched a review into the policy change. The inquiry findings were published in January 2015, but the report was judged by MSPs to be a damp squib and the watchdog faced accusations it had censored a more critical earlier draft.

Under Freedom of Information legislation, this newspaper asked for copies of all drafts and correspondence with key stakeholders.

However, the SPA – then under the chairmanship of Vic Emery – refused and a near 12-month battle ended up with the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC).

The SIC upheld the SPA’s refusal to hand over the specific responses to its draft report, but a slew of emails were ordered to be released. They show that the SPA sent “courtesy” copies to the Government and others on December 9, 2014 as part of a “fact checking” exercise.

The original intention was to publish the final report within 10 days. However, three days after the courtesy copies were sent out, a “revised draft” was then circulated to stakeholders. Days later, a senior SPA figure emailed a senior Scottish Government civil servant. “Your comments all incorporated into revised version,” he wrote.

On the same day, the civil servant informed the SPA that Paul Johnston – at that point the Government’s Director for Safer Communities – also had some “feedback”.

The SPA employee responded: “So I gather from text exchanges between Paul and Vic. Any sense of whether these are further issues of style/tone or points of substance? I have spoken again with [SPA board member] Iain Whyte who feels that we have addressed the points made on Friday while not losing the substance of the recommendations.”

The civil servant replied: “Both but more on tone than on substance.”

The SPA figure then emailed senior colleagues to say he had “spent the night” reviewing the “considerable further feedback” from the Government, Police Scotland Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. He noted that some of the comments relating to the force’s operational independence were “more substantive” and he circulated another “revised draft”.

A combination of changes to the report and meetings with stakeholders contributed to the SPA missing its original pre-Christmas publication date.

The final dossier was published at the end of January and greeted with disappointment in some quarters. In its submissions to SIC, the SPA had argued that releasing actual copies of the draft reports would “significantly damage” the body and cause “reputational damage”.

Although SIC backed the watchdog on this point, it was made clear that the report had undergone “stylistic” changes and that the process had been “iterative.”

HeraldScotland:

Image: extract from SIC report

A governance review into the accountability of policing in Scotland is ongoing and the SPA is at the centre of discussions.

The watchdog is widely viewed as having struggled to hold the force to account and reform is expected.

MSP John Finnie said: “In a liberal democracy we should pride ourselves on the openness and transparency of our public services, including our police service. Yet, once again, we see the sensor’s black ink frustrating public scrutiny, a situation those of us charged with oversight of policing have become very familiar with."

Graeme Pearson, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson, said: “The FoI responses reflect a frenetic exercise by officials and police that not only watered down the initial report but demonstrate for the first time the sheer effort across Government to get agreement over the Christmas period on content. Had they all worked this hard before the firearms policy was changed things would have been so much better for all concerned.”

An SPA spokesperson said: “The SPA Armed Policing Scrutiny inquiry was published more than a year ago and, along with the independent work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, has since influenced continuous improvement in this area of Police Scotland activity. The thrust of those conclusions and recommendations remained consistent through the drafting process, with inevitable changes to the narrative evolving as part of a standard drafting process."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “These claims are untrue. As is normal practice with any report like this, the Scottish Government and other key stakeholders were sent a draft copy in advance and asked to comment on factual accuracy.”

Asked which claims were "untrue", the spokesperson said suggestions that the report had been watered down after Government provided feedback.