By Kath Murray

Next month, Andrew Flanagan, chairman of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), will conclude his review of police governance in Scotland. Following a bumpy start to the new single service, the review is intended to "build on the lessons learned" in relation to police accountability, ensure that robust arrangements are put in place and clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of the bodies in the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 that created Police Scotland.

The outcome of the review should act as a litmus test for the Reform Act, and establish whether it is fit for purpose, or indeed even feasible. The act set out the lines of power and accountability for Scottish policing between three main parties. In principle, the chief constable is held to account by the SPA and, in turn, the authority is answerable to the Scottish Parliament and ministers. In practice, however, things look decidedly lopsided. To date, the balance of power has clearly resided with ministers and the chief constable, leaving the SPA looking on as the beleaguered bystander. A joint statement issued by former chief constable Sir Stephen House and former SPA chairman Vic Emery, in support of Police Scotland has further exacerbated the perception of the authority as an organisation generally beholden to others.

There is a growing body of evidence on the state of police governance in Scotland, which helps to explain the weakened position of the SPA. First, the flow of information from Police Scotland to the SPA, as well as to local scrutiny boards, can be poor, at times bordering on obstructive. In some instances, data provided to the SPA simply mirrors that which is available in public, putting the authority in a reactive position.

Secondly, although the thorny issue of the “operational independence” appears to have gone to ground following the furore over the standing firearms authority, it remains unresolved. As assistant professor of law Stuart MacLennan observes, ministers have mostly deferred to the police, at least in the first instance.

Lastly, and perhaps most troublingly, political interference appears to be writ large, from overt influence to more subtle nudges: from ministerial influence to the excessive involvement of the civil service. While there has been a good deal of noise and indignation about the recent politicization of Scottish policing, with ire principally directed at the opposition parties, in reality the politics mostly appear to be in-house. Whether or not the SPA has the relevant data, information and expertise becomes a moot point if it does not have the autonomy to carry out its role.

The key question is whether Mr Flanagan, paradoxically, will be stymied by the same constraints he is seeking to address. Will the outcome carry the hallmark of the Scottish Government and rein the SPA in further? Or will he genuinely act upon the concerns raised by the consultation and strengthen the capacity of the SPA to carry out its role properly? Will for example, the outcome reflect the various contributions from local and central representatives, academics and other stakeholders? Who is going to run the show?

If it is the former outcome, the noise and heat around Scottish policing will surely intensify, with the risk of further reputational damage for all parties. The challenges levelled at the single service won’t go away. They will simply be displaced and aired elsewhere, creating further headaches.

The latter outcome offers the prospect of a constructive way out of at least some of the difficulties that surround Scottish policing. In the first instance, there is a strong case for parliament to appoint board members, as suggested by opposition MSPs, and to make members accountable to the Justice Committee. More generally, it seems clear that the SPA needs to be allowed to get on with the role of governing. Whilst ministers set the priorities for policing and are currently consulting on these, it is for the SPA, as governors, to lead on developing the strategy to deliver these priorities. An SPA that does not actively engage with expertise or experience in policing, and passively accepts whatever strategic choices the police service wants to pursue, is failing in its duty to the public.

The governance review is a critical opportunity to put right the balance of power and responsibility, and to end the pervasive influence of ministers and civil servants on Scottish policing. There is a good deal at stake here.

Dr Murray is a criminal justice researcher based at the University of Edinburgh.