Single police force ‘at risk of political bias’

THE former head of the Scottish justice department has issued a stark warning that the SNP’s plans for a national police force will hand ministers “much more control over policing”.

Jim Gallagher’s strongly worded criticism of the scrapping of Scotland’s eight regional police forces came as MSPs were warned of the “sketchy” details about local council access to the new national force.

Justice secretary Kenny Mac-Askill yesterday said the new interim police HQ would be at the Scottish Police College in Tulli-allan, Fife, while the new base for the single fire and rescue service would be at Perth Community Fire Station, when the shake-up comes into force on 1 April next year.

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However, Mr Gallagher, writing in The Scotsman today, calls for chief constables to be given the same status as Scotland’s chief law officer – the Lord Advocate – and to give the position parliamentary protection to “avoid the risk” that police powers can be “directed for political purposes”.

Mr Gallagher goes on to warn about the dangers of ministers using powers to direct the new national police authority to dismiss and retire senior officers, as well as imposing decisions about the style of policing in different areas of Scotland. He writes: “Chief constables must be independent, because there are no powers to direct them. The Lord Advocate offers an excellent precedent: he accounts to the Scottish Parliament, but his independence is explicitly safeguarded in statute.

“The power to appoint and dismiss is critical. The police authority is to appoint the chief constable, but only with ministers’ agreement. There are also new powers for the authority to retire senior officers.”

Mr Gallagher also calls for the new national police authority to be made up of elected councillors to safeguard some local control over policing under the new national structure.

The demand came as councillor Barbara Grant, community safety spokeswoman at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, told Holyrood’s local government committee yesterday that there was a “big hole” in the plans.

She said: “There’s a huge gap in the information that we have at the moment in the bill about how these things are going to work. It’s not at all helpful, from what we’ve seen already, on how we’re going to engage.

“We’re OK with the lowest level and maybe the person at the very top. But it’s that huge gap in the middle that we really don’t have enough information about. It’s all far too sketchy.”

However, Mr MacAskill insisted the creation of national police and fire services would be more “convenient” and “cost-effective”, as he dismissed suggestions that services would be disrupted by the shake-up.

He said: “The transition to the new services should be as smooth as possible and using existing venues as interim headquarters will keep costs and disruption to a minimum.”

Meanwhile, a Scottish Government spokeswoman rejected Mr Gallagher’s claims and said the bill “makes it clear that the chief constable is accountable to the Scottish Police Authority, not ministers”.

She said: “It also provides strong safeguards to ensure ministers cannot control or direct the authority or the chief constable to do anything relating to specific police operations.”