JUSTICE Secretary Michael Matheson was accused last night of being in denial over the crisis engulfing Police Scotland after he claimed Sir Stephen House had left a “lasting positive legacy”.
Opposition politicians said Matheson and the Scottish Government were burying their heads in the sand about the full extent of the problems facing Police Scotland when they learned of the Justice Secretary’s verdict on the state of the force under the outgoing chief constable.
Matheson used an article in today’s Scotland on Sunday to pay a fulsome tribute to House, whose leadership of the single police force has come under attack over a number of issues, including the M9 tragedy in which officers took three days to respond to a fatal road accident.
The Justice Secretary said he was “reflecting” on House’s “achievements” and his “huge contribution” to policing following last week’s revelation that he is quitting as Scotland’s most senior police officer.
This week the focus will turn to Matheson when he outlines his plans for the beleaguered force in the Holyrood chamber.
Matheson’s statement will be made at the same time as the publication of a report into the police’s handling of the M9 car crash that led to the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill.
The report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) is expected to make grim reading for the force, which has come in for a blizzard of criticism after it emerged that it took rescuers three days to find the vehicle after a call handler failed to properly log a call from a member of the public.
Meanwhile, new claims have been made that senior police staff have compiled a dossier of blunders made at the Bilston Glen call centre, the control room which took the original message about Bell and Yuill’s car.
The dossier claim was made by Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who said he had been told it contained records of several “near misses”, including a case last week when officers were sent to a wrong address when investigating domestic violence allegations.
Yesterday Rennie reacted angrily to Matheson’s article paying tribute to House, whose tenure has also been marred by controversies over arming officers, high levels of stop and search, the closure of police counters and the mysterious death of Sheku Bayoh while in police custody.
Rennie said: “This article in itself confirms that Michael Matheson and the Scottish Government are in denial about the scale of the deep-rooted nature of the systemic problems in Police Scotland.
“There is no doubt that Stephen House has made an impact, but it is not a positive one. The new chief constable will have an enormous job to try and put right the things that Stephen House got wrong.
“But at the heart of this is the Scottish Government’s ill-judged decision to centralise the police, done in haste and without a proper business plan. Michael Matheson’s gloss will not convince many people today. There is little doubt that Michael Matheson and his colleagues are burying their heads in the sand.”
Although Matheson’s article acknowledged that the police faced challenges and lessons had to be learned, he praised House for leaving “a lasting positive legacy for the police service and the new chief constable to build on”.
Last night Labour’s justice spokesman Graeme Pearson criticised Matheson for not acknowledging the true extent of Police Scotland’s problems.
“I would characterise Mr Matheson’s situation as being someone who is trying to smooth over an incomplete job without acknowledging the absences and the shortcomings. He is making positive noises … without that full honesty to say we didn’t get this right – we have let people down,” Pearson said.
Scottish Labour has also urged Police Scotland to halt plans to close the force’s Aberdeen call centre and transfer call handling functions from Inverness to Dundee.
Margaret Mitchell, Conservative justice spokeswoman, said: “The Scottish Government say there are no systemic failures when there clearly are. Until the Scottish Government recognise what’s happened I don’t think we are going to move on in a way that’s going to make life better for the rank and file officers who are thoroughly demoralised.
“The way that Michael Matheson appears to be addressing this does not begin to tackle what needs to be done.”
House announced at a meeting of the Scottish Police Authority last week that he was leaving his post before the end of his four-year contract.
His departure comes at a time when the performance of the police comes under renewed scrutiny with the return of parliament this week.
As well as the HMICS report into police call handing to be published on Thursday, another report by John Scott QC into concerns over stop and search is to be handed to the government tomorrow.
A third investigation by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner is looking at the M9 deaths.
When asked about claims of near misses at the Bilston Glen call centre, Police Scotland said calls received by the police are reviewed and assessed on a daily basis.