Body that scrutinises Police Scotland is to be investigated itself

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The body charged with providing scrutiny of Police Scotland is itself to be inspected amid suggestions it is failing in its role.

The Scotsman has learned HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) will carry out a review of the effectiveness of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) later this year.

Last month Audit Scotland highlighted “substantial issues” in the SPA’s accounts as it warned the police service is facing a £188 million funding gap by 2020-21. HMICS said its inspection would incorporate a wider review of the SPA’s working practices – including a controversial decision taken last month to hold many of its meetings in private.

Set up in 2012, the SPA manages the £1.1 billion police budget received from the Scottish Government and is responsible for holding the chief constable to account.

A spokesman for HMICS said: “As the SPA will be implementing its new governance arrangements early in 2017, Derek Penman, Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, has decided that it would be timely for HMICS to conduct a statutory inspection into the state, efficiency and effectiveness of the SPA.

“Our inspection will incorporate a wider review of the SPA, the work of its officers and the services it provides.

“This will be our first statutory inspection of the SPA and will involve an evidence-led review of the new governance arrangements.

“It will focus on the SPA oversight of transformational change, financial sustainability, people, audit, and the operation of the new policing committees. This will also include an assessment of how committees operate in private.”

The watchdog said it had yet to set a timetable for the work but hoped to begin planning in March, with the inspection carried out at some point during 2017-18.

In a report published last month, Mr Penman said the SPA and Police Scotland had taken a “narrow approach to the scrutiny of major change”, calling on both organisations to “urgently review and strengthen” governance arrangements.

He also warned of “major financial challenges” ahead and said “urgent work” was needed to improve financial management.

His comments came on the same day Auditor General Caroline Gardner warned the national force faces a funding gap of £188m by 2020-21.

Ms Gardner said she had found “substantial issues” during the examination of the SPA’s annual accounts, echoing comments made 12 months earlier.

Scottish Labour’s justice spokeswoman Claire Baker said: “There have been a number of concerns raised over recent months, particularly around leadership, governance and the finances of Police Scotland.

“The review should bring to an end some of the SPA’s ways of working, including meeting in private. It’s important the SPA is a transparent and accountable organisation.”

Last month the SPA board backed a decision to hold many of its meetings behind closed doors, including those of its finance and investment committee which provides scrutiny of the Police Scotland budget.

However, the authority will continue to meet in public once every two months.

In 2014, the SPA was heavily criticised for failing to hold Police Scotland to account on stop-and-search.

Appearing before MSPs in that year, the SPA’s then chairman, Vic Emery, said his organisation often learned of controversial policing decisions “after the fact”.

A spokesman for the Scottish Police Authority said: “It is the role of the HMICS to carry out inspections on both Police Scotland and the SPA’s operations and we will support them in the forthcoming wide-ranging review.

“As highlighted at our public board meeting in December, the SPA adopted a revised governance framework whereby all significant decisions that require the approval of the SPA will now be taken by the full board of publicly-appointed authority members.

“Board meetings will be more frequent and continue to be held in public and broadcast via livestream.

“In addition, the board has delegated additional functions to the chief executive which will enhance the overall efficiency and timeliness of decision-making.

“The approach will be reviewed again in six months’ time.”