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Police Scotland facing accountability crisis

Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House will face questions over accountability. Picture: PA

Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House will face questions over accountability. Picture: PA

  • by Tom Peterkin
 

POLICE Scotland was last night facing an accountability crisis as the country’s single nationwide force celebrates its first anniversary.

There are claims the force is not being subjected to proper democratic scrutiny and that councils are not doing enough to influence police strategy and budget.

The General Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, which represents 18,500 of the country’s police officers, has admitted the single force lacks local accountability.

Calum Steele has claimed local authorities are not doing enough to hold Police Scotland to account and there is widespread concern from councillors themselves, who believe the abolition of joint police boards has robbed them of a powerful mechanism to influence how the police operate.

The issue will come to a head this week when the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the nationwide body set up to scrutinise Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House, holds a meeting with local politicians in an attempt to improve the situation.

The SPA has contacted the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to organise the meeting, which will see councillors with responsibility for policing discuss their plans with the SPA board.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday ahead of the first anniversary of the establishment of the single force, Steele claims councils have failed to take the initiative to ensure that police commanders are questioned by elected representatives.

According to Steele, Scotland’s new policing structure, which has seen Police Scotland split into 14 divisions under a local policing commander, provides the scope for an effective system of local accountability.

“For whatever reason, local authorities haven’t utilised the blank canvas to the best of their ability. They do feel that there is a denigration in the level of local accountability that exists. It is fair to say that on that denigration they are correct,” Steele told Scotland on Sunday.

“But I very strongly believe that the power to alter it rests with local authorities. There is nothing to prevent the full sitting of council calling their local commander before them on a frequency agreed between themselves – every six weeks, every eight weeks, every month if they wanted. They could hold that commander directly accountable for policing performance in that area.

“It wouldn’t be beyond their collective wit to arrange a meeting with their local assistant chief constable as well to make sure that where any issues are unresolved to hold him to account for a lack of performance.

“But they haven’t done that. I believe local authorities have missed a trick on this. How often do you hear local authorities complaining that it is overly restricted and can’t deliver because of central government dictat? Well, that is absolutely not true in these circumstances.”

The SPA has stated the views of councillors ought to be taken into account by the local commander when local police plans are developed via council committees. In the year since the new force was created, the SPA has been dis­cussing accountability arrangements with local authorities.

The new structure has seen Scotland’s 14 police divisions broken down further into the 353 multi-member wards into which Scottish local government is divided – a move intended to enable local people to influence policing plans.

However, one year after Police Scotland’s establishment, there is concern that not enough has been done to make local officers more responsive to elected politicians and that different approaches are being pursued across Scotland’s 32 councils.

While critics of the Scottish Government’s police reforms, which saw the eight old regional forces merged into Police Scotland, believe that the scrapping of the joint police boards means it is impossible for councillors to hold officers to account in the way they once did.

Martin Greig, a Lib Dem Aberdeen councillor and former convener of the Grampian police board, said: “The Scottish Government has removed the governance role from councillors and no guidance has been given and no support has been given to help monitor the local police divisions.

“The councillors only job now is to advise and comment on the local policing plan. Councillors no longer make the key decisions so the role of local authorities has been reduced to consultees.

“The Scottish Police Federation think the new system is an improvement, but the police board used to meet eight to 10 times a year, there were sub-committees, police boards employed staff and local forces also provided help for police boards.

“There was a lot of administrative work that was carried out, legal advice to support the work that was done. That’s all gone and local authorities themselves have no capacity to provide support to councillors for dealing with police or fire business. And local divisions are very limited in what they can do.”

Cllr Greig added: “There is an accountability deficit because the power has been taken away. We don’t have any powers in relation to policing whereas with the boards there was a strong involvement in police governance in partnership with ministers and local chief constables.

“That arrangement was scrapped with a new single force monitored by the SPA quango and under the direction of the Scottish ministers.”

A similar point was made by Cllr Joanna Mowat, a former joint board member and a current member of Edinburgh City Council’s fire and police committee.

“I think there is a feeling of a lack of accountability,” Mowat said. “People who had concerns flagged it up prior to the creation of the new force and unfortunately it has come to pass. The structure of the new service is such that many of the checks and balances of the old police boards have been removed.”

A Police Scotland spokesman said policing plans were produced by officers for each local authority area.

He said: “Each of the 14 divisions has a chief superintendent who answers to local councils on local issues.”

Award-winning civilian crime unit to be disbanded

A CONTROVERSIAL award-winning scheme that has seen civilians carry out investigations for Police Scotland is to be disbanded, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

The Priority Crime Unit, which is based in Falkirk, had been hailed as an major policing innovation which had been given a Cosla excellence award for investigating minor crimes and enabling more officers to go out on the beat.

Now, Scotland on Sunday has learned the unit is a victim of cuts, which have seen the number of civilian police staff cut by almost 1,700 over the last four years.

Critics of the cuts are concerned that civilian redundancies will result in uniformed police being taken off patrol to carry out routine office work. The unit has seen trained civilians gather evidence on thousands of crimes since it began work in 2008.

Tasks carried out by the investigative assistants include reviewing CCTV footage, interviewing witnesses and carrying out door-to-door inquiries.

Last night Labour’s justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: “It is surprising that an award winning support unit has been disbanded and replaced by uniformed police officers. In terms of a balanced workforce that would not appear to be best practice.

“This is driven by Scottish Government budget cuts, which cut right across support staff who have spent the last few years building up skills, using systems, analysing intelligence who will now be replaced by taking officers off the beat. So we are now seeing higher paid police officers doing support staff jobs.”

It has been staffed by eight investigative assistants, who are paid just over £20,000. In order to work there, civilians had to carry out a three-week training course, which teaches them legal issues surrounding evidence and investigative techniques.

Most of the crimes involved are theft and other “dishonesty” offences, and vandalism, but a murder and a sexual assault have seen civilians carrying out police tasks.

The unit was established on the basis that crimes of violence would remain the task solely of police to investigate.

Although its work had been recognised by Cosla, it had proved controversial with critics describing it as “policing on the cheap”.

Assistant Chief Constable Mike McCormick said: “The creation of Police Scotland has enabled an opportunity to create a new policing delivery model with a focus on local community policing and the provision of specialist resource available no matter where and when it is needed.

“The Falkirk unit’s structure had already changed during organisational change at the former Central Scotland Police, now Forth Valley Division, and as a result of decreased demand, and increased numbers of police officers there has been a steady decline in the number of civilian investigators. Any staff remaining are now integrated with divisional CID teams where their skills are being used to support investigations. Work is under way to re-align all investigative work in relation to any minor crimes, whether violent or not, to the community policing teams.

“This creates a consistency of service and means community officers will be the single point of contact for members of the public in relation to the investigation of non-violent crimes.

“We have a policy of no compulsory redundancies and any staff impacted by change will be offered alternative roles within the organisation.”

 

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