Chris Marshall: Scottish Police Authority needs an urgent overhaul

When the board of the Scottish Police Authority last met in public, its deliberations were overshadowed by the unfolding terror attack at Westminster in which an officer lost his life.

Andrew Flanagan's appearance at a Holyrood audit committee last week prompted calls for his resignation as chairman of the Scottish Police Authority.

The murder of PC Keith Palmer was a brutal reminder of the daily dangers faced by police officers and the importance of making sure this vital public service is working as best it can to protect us all.

Yet despite the huge importance attached to policing, there was just one journalist and apparently no members of the public at the only meeting the SPA does not hold in private.

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While the bi-monthly public meeting can be watched live online, the turnout was nevertheless surprising given the amount of outrage expressed following a controversial decision taken by the SPA to hold its committees behind closed doors and away from troublesome members of the press.

Indeed the SPA’s apparent strategy seems to have been to avoid any publicity whatsoever, an odd position for an overseeing body whose reason for being is to hold Police Scotland to account.

It’s hardly as if the public meetings are combustible or even contentious affairs.

Rather, they are stage-managed shows of corporate unity where the only real prospect of drama for the audience member is nodding off and finding yourself caught on camera.

But if the SPA’s strategy was to keep a low profile, it has spectacularly failed.

Following a shambolic performance by board members in front of the Scottish Parliament’s audit committee last week, the organisation attracted a slew of negative headlines, including a number of newspaper editorials calling for its chairman, Andrew Flanagan, to resign.

MSPs on Holyrood’s audit committee heard claims from former board member Moi Ali that she was bullied and effectively forced out of the organisation by Mr Flanagan, something he denies.

Perhaps worse still was a claim from Ms Ali that former chairman Vic Emery referred to her as a “one-trick diversity pony” due to her interest in the representation of ethnic minorities within Police Scotland.

Members of the SPA have spoken of the need to hold meetings in private to win the trust of senior police officers who are unable to speak candidly in public.

This is an argument most people would understand to some extent but it has been poorly articulated by the police authority. In appearing more interested in secrecy than scrutiny, the SPA has committed the cardinal media sin – it has become the story.

With its credibility seriously undermined, it’s hard to see where the SPA can go from here.

It seems likely that a review of its governance by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland will recommend it once again allows the public into all of its meetings.

But there is a deeper problem here that won’t be solved by simply throwing open the doors to gatherings unlikely to be of much interest to the wider public in any case.

Rather the SPA needs root and branch reform, or at the very least a new appreciation that it is there to hold the chief constable to account, not just rubber stamp every decision he makes.

Its members could begin that work when the board meets again in Clydebank next week.

Simply put, the SPA is not currently up to the job it has been given. Policing is too important for all of us to let that stand.