MSP urges independent review of crisis-hit police

Police Scotland today faces calls for an independent review into its operation in order to trigger an 'honest conversation' about where it has gone wrong over the last five years.
Police officers have seen their organisation engulfed in controversy since the restructure five years ago. Picture: John DevlinPolice officers have seen their organisation engulfed in controversy since the restructure five years ago. Picture: John Devlin
Police officers have seen their organisation engulfed in controversy since the restructure five years ago. Picture: John Devlin

As the centralised force marks its fifth anniversary, Lib Dem justice spokesman Liam McArthur claims Police Scotland must be subjected to an inquiry that is free from political interference or vested interests.

Writing in Scotland on Sunday, McArthur argues that Justice Secretary Michael Matheson must accept the Lib Dems’ recommendation for an independent review.

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For five stormy years, Police Scotland has been mired in controversies that have seen the departure of two chief constables, rows over police accountability and concern over operational policing.

McArthur argues that an independent investigation would free Police Scotland from accusations that the force has not been scrutinised effectively by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) watchdog.

Since Police Scotland was established in 2013 by Alex Salmond’s SNP administration, the SPA has seen the resignation of two chairs, Vic Emery and Andrew Flanagan, in controversial circumstances.

Critics have complained that SPA members are appointed by the Scottish Government rather than parliament and concerns have been raised about undue ministerial influence on the watchdog.

In his article, McArthur questions why there are no “alternative, independent, expert perspectives” on Scottish policing.

“After half a decade of Police Scotland, the SNP need to have an honest conversation about where they have gone wrong,” McArthur writes.

“...All the evidence tells us that the system cannot be trusted to make the right decisions. It cannot be left to the same old faces to trot out the same old excuses and paper over the cracks. That path will only lead to our failing the police officers and staff who work day-in day-out to protect our communities.

“It is past time to loosen the grip of police bosses and government ministers and pull Scottish policing out of the shadows. The Justice Secretary has no excuse but to accept our request for an independent review.”

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McArthur highlights previous attempts to look at the way the SPA scrutinises Police Scotland, in particular a review of the watchdog conducted by the then SPA deputy chair Nicola Marchant and Western Isles chief executive Malcolm Burr.

He contrasts that with the approach taken by the Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton, who made outspoken criticisms of the force when appearing as an independent witness before a Holyrood committee looking at claims of police spying.

McArthur made his plea as it emerged that MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee are launching their own investigation into the centralisation of Scotland’s police and fire services.

Members of the committee have called for views on the legislation which brought Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service into being, as it prepares to review how effective the move has been.

Police Scotland has been engulfed in controversy since the Police and Fire Reform Act merged eight local forces to form the new organisation.

Among the most high profile have been rows over the deployment of armed officers on routine patrols, the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody and the failure of officers to attend a car accident on the M9 that led to the deaths of two people.

The amalgamated force has also lurched from one leadership crisis to another.

The force’s first chief constable Stephen House resigned after the M9 incident to be replaced by Phil Gormley. Gormley left under a cloud earlier this year having been accused of a string of bullying allegations, which he denied. He has been replaced by an interim chief constable, Iain Livingstone. A permanent replacement for Gormley has yet to be appointed.

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Last night Livingstone said: “While we have the strength of our national resources, we recognise we also have the best of local policing and I am committed to developing this for the benefit of our communities – whether urban, rural or remote. At the same time, it’s important that we acknowledge that over the past five years there have been some significant challenges and issues. We need to move forward with a degree of humility, a commitment to openness and a greater willingness to engage with the people we serve so that they better understand how we police and why we take the decisions we need to take.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Reform has improved how both services work to keep Scotland’s communities safe from harm and the last five years have brought a number of successes. The single services have provided national specialist capabilities that would not have been possible in the past, allowing us to respond more effectively to the evolving challenges of keeping people safe in a modern Scotland. 

“Ministers recognise that a change of such scale and significance as the formation of Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was always likely to present challenges but the independent evaluation of reform is clear about the benefits we have seen delivered.”