Scottish Police Authority changes would 'put at risk' chief constable's independence

The independent review from former auditor general Robert Black said the governance and accountability arrangements at the SPA were not flawed or in need of further reform.

Changes to the way the SPA work could "put at risk" the chief constable's operational independence, a report has said.

Changes to the way the Scottish Police Authority is governed should not take place due to the potential for a “significant risk of compromising the operational independence of the chief constable”, an independent review into the police watchdog has said.

In a report published today, former auditor general Robert Black said that making the chief constable of Police Scotland directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government for how Police Scotland spends its budget would “put at risk” the SPA’s ability to oversee the performance of the organisation.

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In the review, the SPA was also criticised for a lack of diversity on its board with Mr Black suggesting board members should be paid annual salaries to improve the work of the authority.

Overall, the report concluded that the governance and accountability arrangements at the SPA are not flawed “at this time”, and that “after years of instability, significant improvements are being made.”

The report rejected the view that the chief constable should be considered accountable for the spending of Police Scotland and be answerable direct to the Scottish Parliament.

Despite the argument this could promote a “clearer understanding in Parliament and across Scotland about policing strategy and spending decisions”, the change was rejected by the independent review.

The report states: “However, a change in the AO [Accountable Officer] arrangements would lead to the Chief Constable, or a senior designated officer of Police Scotland, having a direct accountability to the Permanent Secretary in the Scottish Government and to the Scottish Parliament.

"It would alter significantly the role of the SPA. By constraining the legitimacy of the SPA such a change might put at risk the Authority’s ability to oversee effectively the performance of Police Scotland.

"There could be a significant risk of compromising the operational independence of the Chief Constable and it would involve replacing the 2012 Act by new legislation, embedded in which would be a very different role and more constrained role for the SPA and for the Members of the Authority.”

The report also criticises the SPA for a lack of a “strong clerking function” and suggests senior Police Scotland staff should be given “explicit authority” to spend up to a certain level.

It also criticised the board for being too Edinburgh-centric in its membership which may contribute to a lack of understanding around the policing of diverse groups.

The report concludes: “Some have argued that the governance and accountability arrangements are flawed and in need of further reform. I do not believe this is the case at this time. After years of instability, significant improvements are being made.

“The Chief Constable has built a strong and very capable senior leadership team and the SPA has a strong Board populated with people with the right range of skills and experience to improve the Board’s effectiveness, supported by a recently appointed Chief Executive who is held in high regard by the Board.”

The SPA has had a chequered past with a recent HMICS report blasting it for having “no clear vision, strategy of plan in place”, with the review from Mr Black part of the response to the report.

Its former chairwoman, Professor Susan Deacon, said the authority was “fundamentally flawed” in her resignation announcement in December.

David Crichton, Interim Chair of the SPA, said: "The Authority welcomes publication of Bob Black's report. It will further inform the work of the Policing Governance Roundtable where all partners are working collectively to strengthen the whole system of police governance in Scotland."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Recent months have again highlighted how Scotland’s communities are well-served by the officers and staff of their national policing service and this report highlights that the framework currently in place allows for good governance.

“Nonetheless, we want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to continually continually improve the governance of Scotland’s policing system. That is why we are continuing to work with key partners, including SPA, Police Scotland, PIRC and HMICS.

“We recognise that the board should be as representative of Scotland’s population as possible and with the new recruitment round that is about to commence we hope that this will be addressed.”

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