Leaders: Openness on arming police | Exam equality

The sight of officers carrying handguns and Taser stun guns on our streets gave rise to considerable disquiet. Picture: TSPL
The sight of officers carrying handguns and Taser stun guns on our streets gave rise to considerable disquiet. Picture: TSPL
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Police must learn from fury and be open on guns

In APRIL 2013, a new phenomenon appeared on Scotland’s streets: armed police officers going about their routine duties. This came as a total surprise. There was no debate on this development, no public consultation and, most surprising of all, no discussion in the Scottish Parliament. The decision was taken as if it was a matter of organisational routine.

The sight of officers carrying handguns and Taser stun guns on our streets gave rise to considerable disquiet. And in October, amid increasing criticism, Police Scotland said the officers would only be deployed to firearms incidents or where there was a threat to life.

Now a report by the Scottish Police Authority has concluded that the absence of what it calls “proactive communications” contributed to public misunderstanding.

That barely cuts to the heart of the matter. It is not so much the arming of police officers – the public well understands the elevated threats to public security we now face and indeed the policy has received some support. It is the manner in which this major step was undertaken that gave cause for disquiet.

The decision to arm police officers on routine patrol was presented to the public as a fait accompli. There was no attempt to inform the public beforehand. And the absence of prior discussion at Holyrood, let alone a vote in the Scottish Parliament, was not only a cavalier way to proceed; it could well have established a disturbing precedent that would allow Police Scotland and the Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, to take major decisions on policy with the minimum of public information and accountability.

While there is widespread understanding of the heightened dangers from random and indiscriminate acts of terrorism, there is a careful balancing to be struck here to ensure that the public is informed and that it fully understands changes in policy with regard to the carrying of firearms and that the decision to arm officers carries the maximum of public support.

The SPA must not confuse opposition to the way this issue was handled with opposition to arming police officers. It was public disquiet over the way this was done, reflected in the media, that caused the outcry. The very heart of it is that the move was never discussed. The public might well be in favour of it. The point is we should find out if that is the case before action is taken.

However, the SPA has acknowledged that the force had underestimated the concerns that the lack of information and consultation raised across communities. And it has recommended that Police Scotland engage with the SPA on “all issues which are likely to have a significant public impact”.

Both the justice minister and Holyrood should make every 
effort to ensure that these recommendations have been fully understood and that they are acted on.

Exam appeal charges fail fairness test

Equality of opportunity is a key principle of Scotland’s education system. It should work to ensure that all who have talent have an equal opportunity to succeed, whether from the state school system or the private sector. It is with this principle in mind that new figures showing that the number of state school exam appeals in Scotland has fallen by 55,000 or more than 75 per cent since new charges were introduced give cause for disquiet.

The proportion of appeals by private school pupils now stands at more than double that of state school pupils. The figures give credence to the claim that state school pupils are being priced out of a “second chance” in education.

When the charges were introduced, it was intended that the cost would come from the school or the council. But with the squeeze on budgets, this has shifted. Parents of private school pupils can more readily put their hands in their pockets to pay the charge. But for many state school parents this impost can present a more difficult challenge.

Overall, there may be some surprise that the overall incidence of appeals is as high as it is. This may point to a mismatch between the expectations of pupils and the exam appraisal system. But the issue at stake here is equality of treatment, and the evidence points to a clear disadvantage being suffered by those from poorer backgrounds. As with any new change in government policy, it should be subject to scrutiny to ensure that unintended consequences have not arisen. That would seem to be the case here. The charges imposed on exam appeals are working in a discriminatory manner, and in the light of this disturbing evidence they should be dropped forthwith.