A NEW policy allowing members of the public to quiz the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) has been suspended by the chair of the watchdog.

The SPA last year enabled citizens and stakeholders to quiz the SPA directly, but chair Susan Deacon has opted to “pause and review” the system.

A staff association representing police officers was told recently that their questions on the integration of the British Transport Police (BTP) with Police Scotland would not be accepted.

Nigel Goodband, Chair of BTP Federation, said: “If the well-documented commitment to greater transparency and accountability – both within the SPA and throughout the integration process – represents two steps forward, withdrawing the facility for stakeholders and the public to ask questions of the Authority is three steps back."

The SPA, under the leadership of former chair Andrew Flanagan, suffered a barrage of political and media criticism last year over a series of anti-openness proposals.

Flanagan wanted to hold SPA committee meetings behind closed doors and restrict the publication of official papers, but an outcry led to a u-turn.

A related row over his treatment of ex board member Moi Ali, who had opposed the plans, eventually led to his resignation.

However, Flanagan did open up the SPA in other ways, such as allowing external groups and individuals to email questions to the board.

Deacon, a former Labour Health Minister who stood down as an MSP in 2007, replaced him as chair.

Ahead of the March board meeting, the BTP Federation tabled several questions on the potential merger of the railway force with Police Scotland.

The Federation asked the Board about the “hiatus” in the integration plan, whether there was a new timeframe, how to improve engagement, and pension liabilities.

However, the SPA responded: “The new chair has taken a decision to pause and review the impact and value of the public questions facility and consider what options there may be of making the public's involvement more effective and meaningful.”

The watchdog added: “I would anticipate that some of the questions you raise will be covered during the board's consideration of a BTP update (item eight). You can watch the meeting live at the following link or at more convenient time after the meeting has concluded.”

In an update published on the SPA website, Deacon explained the rethink by saying there had only been an average of two public contributions per meeting.

“While I am grateful to all those who have contributed, I believe that there is further work required to look at how we can better involve public in the work of the authority.”

Goodband added: “The process desperately needs a culture of openness and the actions of the SPA have done little to reassure us about the willingness of decision-makers to engage.”

Ali also questioned the move: “I am disappointed to see the SPA suspend this, particularly before they have come up with an alternative form of meaningful stakeholder engagement. If there has been poor take-up, it is most likely because the process was one way. People did not know in advance whether their question would be posed to the board, nor were they informed after the event as to whether it was answered and, if not, why not. No wonder people quickly lost confidence in this as a genuine attempt to engage with stakeholders.

“I submitted a question myself, but was unable to see whether it was answered due to the failure the SPA’s livestream at that particular meeting. When I asked SPA if it had been addressed, I received no response. It is this kind of poor communication that has led to people losing faith. I would urge the SPA to continue with this facility until they come up with something better, and to make simple improvements to how it operates."

An SPA spokesperson said: "It is important that the SPA reaches out and engages in ways that allow a range of voices and views to inform its governance and scrutiny work. Offering up an email address for board meetings has not done that. While we welcome the contributions we had, only a few people and organisations submitted points, and sometimes on topics unrelated to the meeting agenda. So it is timely to pause and come up with better ways of allowing the widest possible set of public and stakeholder views to inform the SPA's work."