Leaders: Police watchdog must have more power

The decision to arm regular officers has sparked controversy. Picture: Hemedia
The decision to arm regular officers has sparked controversy. Picture: Hemedia
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JUST weeks after a public row erupted over the carrying of handguns by police officers on routine duties, searching questions have surfaced about the role of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and its powers – or lack of them – in scrutinising major changes to the way in which police operate.

The decision to arm police officers in this way raises issues of public interest. It should have been a matter meriting full scrutiny beforehand by the SPA, which has oversight of police governance. By virtue of this responsibility, the public had every right to expect that this significant change in police operations was subject to prior consultation and thorough debate.

But yesterday Vic Emery, the chair of the SPA, revealed that the standing authority from Chief Constable Sir Stephen House allowing officers to carry handguns was referred to in a single line of a document handed to it ahead of the creation of Police Scotland in April 2013. Remarkably, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill had no discussions with the SPA on the issue.

The SPA’s role, Mr Emery said, “is very much after the fact and that’s not really my view of governance. We need to move to a situation where we are consulted in advance of decisions being made rather than after the fact.”

The act makes clear that the chief constable has operational independence from any political interference. The definition of “operational” is, however, vague. And oversight by the SPA is not quite the same thing as being “political”. Without such oversight, the chief constable is effectively being handed carte blanche to do as he likes.

It is rather late in the day now for the SPA to discover that it only seems to have powers to scrutinise operational decisions “after the fact”, and to express frustration over this highly circumscribed role. What is the point of having an SPA at all, unless it is not only consulted about changes to police operations but also has input into decisions before they happen?

Both the SPA and HM Inspector of Constabulary have announced plans to carry out reviews of armed policing. But the public were surely entitled to expect that the issue would have been considered in advance of the change in procedure and that the SPA was consulted. What is the point of a watchdog if it is kept in the dark?

When Scotland’s unified single police force was first proposed, accountability was a major issue. The move, while well merited on cost and efficiency considerations, was always going to raise concerns about how the chief constable would be held responsible for his actions.

The SPA needs to establish an effective means of holding the police accountable. It has to make sure it is aware of significant changes in policing before they happen, not afterwards. And Mr MacAskill needs a better response than: “Nothing to see here, move along.”

Happy living the high life

Arthur Morrison, an SNP councillor in Fife, has been accused of letting down voters after it emerged he was drawing an annual salary of £16,234 while spending most of his time in Austria, where he runs an IT business.

GCHQ has intercepted the following mobile phone conversation between the chief clerk of Fife Council and Mr Morrison:

CHIEF CLERK (CC): Hello? Arthur? Can you hear me OK?

MORRISON: I’m in the Alps. I hear you fine.

CC: There’s a council committee meeting tonight you really should attend. Will you be coming?

MORRISON: How can I? The hotel’s high up. And the ski lift’s broken.

CC: You really should have made plans. Did you get the minutes?

MORRISON: Minutes? It takes hours to get served a drink here, never mind minutes.

CC: Labour are saying you really should be here, Arthur.

MORRISON: I told them, I’m just across the water.

CC: They thought you meant the Forth, and that you were in Edinburgh.

MORRISON: I’ll pick it all up when the snow melts. More importantly, what about my attendance allowance? And the travel expenses?

CC: You’ll be getting those from Kirkcaldy, Arthur. When the snow melts.

MORRISON: I need to be out here. I can’t help it if there’s no Mega Bus.

CC: People are asking questions. You’ll get your just deserts from the voters, Arthur. They’re fired up.

MORRISON: Deserts? Mine’s a double strudel. Must go now. Yode-lee, yode-loo!