The resignation of Scottish Police Authority (SPA) chair Susan Deacon has reignited existing concerns about the effectiveness or otherwise of the governance arrangements established in the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012.

Professor Deacon’s resignation has also rekindled debate as to whether Scotland’s police governance problem is structural, or simply about individuals. 

Professor Deacon’s resignation letter states “accountability arrangements for policing in Scotland are fundamentally flawed”. 

In the latter camp, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has previously argued that “most of the issues at the top of the SPA and Police Scotland revolved around personalities, rather than anything more fundamental”. 

With the Scottish Government now looking to appoint its fourth chair within less than six years, and the SPA currently on its fourth chief executive, the “flawed individuals” argument looks increasingly inadequate here, nor does it reflect well on the appointments process. 

Even within the first year of police reform, Audit Scotland reported that a “lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, and difficult relationships between the Scottish Government, the SPA and Police Scotland” had hampered the move to a single force.

More recently Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) reported that the SPA still needs to  “set out in detail how it will exercise its duty to hold the Chief Constable to account through its system of governance”.

HMICS’s findings were met with a muted response by both the authority and the Scottish Government.

Dr Malik’s doctoral research on the role of the SPA in the new governance arrangements for Scottish policing has shown how the ongoing problems relate to organisational, structural and legislative weaknesses.

These include fundamental weaknesses in the SPA’s understanding of its own roles and responsibilities, an over-reliance on information presented to the SPA by the police, and a lack of expertise to effectively challenge or scrutinise this. 

Dr Malik’s research also highlighted concerns raised by some board members over excessive ministerial and Scottish Government interference, as well as a lack of meaningful engagement with other key stakeholders such as local scrutiny committees, HMICS and Audit Scotland. 

Looking at how we got here, the current problems also raise questions about the quality of parliamentary scrutiny, the effects of a single party majority, as well as the capacity of MSPs to scrutinise the volume of legislation passing through Holyrood. 

With 17 chapters on policing, the bill represented the most significant police reform in living memory. Nonetheless, it completed all three parliamentary stages in just four months, with Stage 2 scrutiny by the Justice Committee undertaken in two sittings. 

Moving at a galloping pace, the proceedings saw substantive issues dismissed, often with minimal debate and along party lines. While the stated driver for reform was economic, an amendment requiring Scottish Ministers to provide a full business case before the 2012 Act came into force failed. Proposals aimed at improving standards of accountability also failed, including an amendment by then Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes for the SPA chair to be appointed by Parliament, and an amendment by Labour MSP Lewis MacDonald requiring annual reporting on police officer and staff numbers.

That these concerns have persisted well beyond the bill’s lifetime reflects poorly on the proceedings that established the single policing structure. 

Bringing the uneasy relationship between the Scottish Police Authority and the Scottish Government into sharp relief, the resignation of Susan Deacon adds further weight to the existing case for reform.

That successive SPA chairs have imposed their own style and interpretation of police governance is indicative of structural flaws, and suggests that the role of the chair needs to be reviewed and decision-making made more transparent. As the recent HMICS report highlights, there are also governance arrangements in other jurisdictions that Scotland could look to draw from.

More immediately, the SPA needs to ensure that it has the expertise and awareness to understand the strategic issues that policing involves, and place a greater focus on delivering public accountability, rather than focusing on the minutiae of corporate details in public board meetings.

To achieve this, the SPA could address its internal composition, which to date has been weighted towards appointing members from corporate backgrounds, rather than reflect a diversity of experience and competencies. We would also suggest wider engagement and consultation to develop the evidence base on policing, for example with third sector organisations, staff associations, academics and local community representatives. 

In principle the SPA should be suitably placed to establish itself as a buffer between central government, local government and the police; although this is clearly dependent on the ability of the SPA to establish itself as an arms-length body, and establish clear distance from the Scottish Government. Should this continue to prove unachievable, it may be time to rethink the current governance arrangements.  

Dr Kath Murray is  a Research Fellow in Criminology at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Ali Malik is a lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University