Chris Marshall: SPA fails to shine a public light on the police

Questions have been asked about the level of scrutiny that Police Scotland is under.

Questions have been asked about the level of scrutiny that Police Scotland is under.

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The first question asked of senior officers at the most recent public meeting of the Scottish Police Authority was whether they had any way of monitoring the number of those unfollowing the force on Twitter.

While the question attracted widespread derision on said social network, it was nevertheless just one of many things asked in a meeting which often runs to over three hours.

However, it does raise a question about the level of scrutiny Police Scotland is under.

Earlier this month it emerged the SPA has decided to hold its sub-committee meetings in private, including the finance and investment committee which is there to ask questions about the police budget.

If the questions at public meetings attended by the press and shown live on the internet are bad, we can only imagine what the standard of cross-examination is like behind closed doors.

Ask any journalist who has covered SPA meetings, and they’ll tell you of their frustration at having to sit and listen to panel members ask meandering questions easily swatted aside by senior officers.

The SPA board enjoys a level of access to senior police officers that is often denied the media, yet it seems to do very little with it.

Last week it was the SPA’s turn to answer questions, when chief executive John Foley and chairman Andrew Flanagan appeared before Holyrood’s justice sub-committee on policing.

Ahead of the meeting, the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), which represents rank and file officers, had warned Police Scotland was on a “precipice” and needed £200 million to restore its ageing buildings.

The SPF said the reliance on recorded crime as a measure of police effectiveness was “dangerously misleading” and accused Police Scotland of “developing a narrative” around cyber-crime to soften public opinion to the prospect of having fewer officers on the streets.

The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, which usually speaks in more sober tones, said the force had “daunting” financial challenges. The association also hit out at the reporting of recorded crime being at a 42-year low, which it said did not “in any way” represent day-to-day challenges.

Yet despite suggestions of a looming financial crisis, MSPs heard how the SPF and Unison, which represents civilian staff, have been excluded from discussions on the budget by the SPA.

Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell said it was “appalling” that those representing staff on the ground had been effectively “frozen out” of the talks.

And committee convener Mary Fee said she was “very disappointed” that rank and file officers were being excluded.

The issue seems an easy one to resolve: make the meetings public again, allowing both staff associations and members of the press to attend.

There can be no justification for a public service which receives more than £1 billion in taxpayers’ money each year having just one public scrutiny meeting every two months.

If the SPA wants to engender public confidence in Scottish policing then it must be open about the challenges that are being faced.

Like Police Scotland, the SPA is still finding its feet three years after the creation of the single service.

But its failure to hold feet to the fire is doing itself and the public at large a disservice.

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