Acting police chief’s plea for less political interference

Livingstone would consider taking the job of chief constable if it fell vacant. Picture: Jon Savage
Livingstone would consider taking the job of chief constable if it fell vacant. Picture: Jon Savage
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The senior officer leading Scotland’s embattled police force has called for space to make decisions free of political interference.

Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said he and his colleagues had been unprepared for the “intense” scrutiny Police Scotland would be under when it was formed in 2013.

And he said the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the body charged with holding his force to account, needed to be stronger and have a higher public profile.

Livingstone cancelled his retirement plans in September after Chief Constable Phil Gormley took a leave of absence to allow bullying allegations against him to be investigated.

A former detective and senior officer with Lothian and Borders Police, Livingstone said he decided to call time on his police career after seeing the impact on former colleagues including former chief constable Sir Stephen House. But he said he reconsidered after being asked to do so by the Scottish Government and might consider the job of chief constable if it became available.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday from Police Scotland’s headquarters at Tulliallan Castle, Livingstone said he hoped policing would return to being what he called “an apolitical public service”.

“The level of political and media focus is significant,” he said. “When we came into the new organisation, we knew it would be increased from our experience in the legacy arrangements. We knew it would increase, but we didn’t realise the intensity.

“I don’t think anyone would have anticipated it. If you look at the number of freedom of information requests we receive and the demands on us as individuals which are quite intrusive – the impact that puts on you and your family – it’s far more than we experienced under the legacy structures.”

Livingstone said the “upside” to that is greater accountability and scrutiny of policing, but he said the body set up to hold the chief constable to account – the SPA – had so far struggled to keep pace.

New SPA chair Susan Deacon, a former cabinet minister in the then Scottish Executive, takes up her post tomorrow.

Livingstone said he hoped that would help usher in a new era of higher visibility for the Authority.

“The SPA has not operated as robustly or as efficiently as it could,” he said.

“Undoubtedly there’s an expectation there will be improvements in that regard. Its primary purpose is to maintain policing, that’s partly governance and oversight, but also providing support and advocating for and explaining policing. Very often, the authority did not have a presence in the public eye. I think the new chair – with her background – will have a higher public profile.”

Livingstone said he would remain in post for the “foreseeable future” until the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) concludes its work looking at the allegations against Gormley.

The chief constable faces dismissal if found to have acted in a way which amounts to gross misconduct. He denies any wrongdoing.

A separate SPA investigation into criminal conduct has led to the suspension of Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins and Superintendent Kirk Kinnell amid claims the two men used a firing range at Jackton, East Kilbride, for unauthorised purposes.

The level of media interest in the force led Justice Secretary Michael Matheson to make a statement on 
Police Scotland at Holyrood last week, while HM Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland, Derek Penman, issued a statement denying there is a “crisis” in Scottish policing.

Livingstone said he hoped the constant political interest in policing would stop.

“It would be helpful if issues around government policy and the political debate that goes on in Scotland, if policing wasn’t part of that,” he said.

“That’s what at times makes it difficult for senior officers and operational officers and staff, if [policing] gets moved around as a political issue. Core policing in its essence is apolitical.”

On the issue of armed policing, which attracted considerable interest at Holyrood, Livingstone said the matter had simply been a “failure of engagement” on the part of the police service.

“Parliament should have an interest in armed policing,” he said. “But the practice of armed officers in Scotland is almost identical to the practice in England and Wales, yet I can’t remember the last time there was a debate on armed policing in Westminster. I would like to take policing out of the constant political debate and discussion and go back to policing as an apolitical public service based on human rights.”

He added: “At times I think there is a danger of the Holyrood bubble. Having said that, the concerns that have been raised are legitimate. But policing is like football, it’s something everyone has an opinion on regardless of experience or insight.”

Livingstone, who was interviewed for the job of chief constable at the same time as Gormley, said he had planned to retire earlier this year after seeing the damage a career in policing and the intense media scrutiny had done to close colleagues.

“I had been a deputy chief constable for almost five years,” he said. “My judgment at that time was that Phil Gormley was going to stay for another two or three years. I didn’t want to keep doing that job I was doing. I saw close friends and colleagues of mine such as Stephen House and [former deputy chief constable] Neil Richardson. I knew the impact the job had had on them when they retired. So I wanted to retire when I still felt optimistic.

“They hadn’t been crushed, but as individuals it was very difficult circumstances they retired in, having given their life to policing.”

He said he had been asked to cancel his retirement plans by the Scottish Government.

“I was asked to reconsider my retirement and I genuinely felt it was my duty to do so. It could have been for a month, three months, six months. It was about stepping in for the foreseeable future and taking leadership of the force.”

Asked if he would consider being chief constable in the future, he said: “I might. But I would consider that at the time. The starting point for me would be the interests and views of my wife and family.”