MSPs must pick chair of police watchdog, warns Willie Rennie

Rennie expressed concern that Chief Constable Phil Gormley, above, had not been suspended during the investigation. Picture: Iain Rutherford
Rennie expressed concern that Chief Constable Phil Gormley, above, had not been suspended during the investigation. Picture: Iain Rutherford
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Justice Secretary Michael Matheson is facing political pressure to overhaul the Police Scotland watchdog in the wake of the bullying allegations made against chief constable Phil Gormley.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie is demanding that the Scottish Government strengthens the public accountability of the single force as concerns mount within Police Scotland over Gormley’s style of leadership.

Last week it emerged that Gormley, Scotland’s most senior police officer, is being investigated for gross misconduct after bullying allegations were levelled at him by Superintendent Graham McInarlin.

Despite calls for him to be suspended while the inquiry is carried out, Gormley remains in post and has pledged to cooperate fully with the probe being carried out by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc).

The serious nature of the allegations mean that Gormley would face dismissal if they are proved.

“The investigation into the conduct of the Chief Constable and the decision by the Scottish Police Authority not to suspend him is further evidence that the system needs reformed,” Rennie told Scotland on Sunday.

Since the merger of Scotland’s eight forces into a centralised national force, Police Scotland has moved from one crisis to the next. Meanwhile politicians have expressed concern that the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) watchdog has been failing to hold the force to account.

Last month Andrew Flanagan resigned as SPA chair following heavy criticism from two Holyrood committees over a lack of transparency and governance at the watchdog.

Yesterday Rennie called on ministers to halt the process of finding Flanagan’s replacement and reform the way the appointment is made. At the moment the position of SPA chair is a ministerial appointment. Rennie wants the system changed so the Scottish Parliament – with the backing of two-thirds of MSPs – has the power to choose the candidate.

The Lib Dem leader argued the move would strengthen the democratic accountability of the Police Scotland and restore confidence in a force that has been hit by a series of high-profile controversies such as over the deployment of armed police, the delay in reacting to the couple found dead near the M9 and the case of Sheku Bayoh, who 
was found dead in police custody.

Police Scotland insiders say the leadership of the force is at “sixes and sevens” with particular concern about the imminent departure of Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, who announced his decision to retire earlier this month.

According to police sources, Livingstone has been providing much of the day-to-day leadership with Gormley preferring to take on an ambassadorial role.

“He [Gormley] would rather be in the background and have Livingstone run the force,” said one source. “If the last chief was in about the weeds, Phil Gormley is up in the clouds.

“For £212,000 a year, I’m expecting more than an ambassadorial role. Taxpayers expect the chief constable to be up front and central, driving the ship and being the leader.”

Asked how Police Scotland would be left following Livingstone’s departure, he said: “Weakened.”

“The chief constable is now responsible for the whole of Scotland. The M9 tragedy, the Sheku Bayoh case, stop-search – these are Police Scotland issues. I’m not detracting from the seriousness of those, but previously they would have been seen as issues for local forces.”

Another police insider said: “There’s a feeling that we’re going backwards. It’s telling that the police service cannot retain someone with the obvious talents of Iain Livingstone – that’s a huge, huge problem.

“He’s the one that’s been running this force since Gormley was appointed. Gormley kisses babies and cuts ribbons: his duties are ceremonial.”

In addition, there is understood to be growing concern within Police Scotland over the growing “politicisation” of Scottish policing which is said to be putting off candidates from applying for the top jobs.

A recently advertised assistant chief constable role, which commands a salary of £115,000, is said to have received just one external applicant. 

For Rennie, part of the solution to Police Scotland’s woes has to be improved accountability.

“The Scottish Government should halt the appointment of the new Chairman of the Scottish Police Authority to allow for the power of appointment to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament,” he said. 

“The appointment of the new chairman would require support of two-thirds of MSPs just like the support required for the appointment of Commissioners like the Human Rights and Children’s Commissioner. This would strengthen the democratic accountability and help restore the confidence of the parliament and the country in the Scottish Police Authority. The relationship between parliament and the Scottish Police Authority has been fraught and boiled over when the Justice Committee openly expressed misgivings about the chairman, Andrew Flanagan, which eventually led to his resignation. The Scottish Government needs to recognise that the accountability arrangements are not working. They should embrace these sensible proposals.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said there were “no plans” to changing the appointment of SPA members by ministers.

Police Scotland declined to comment.