Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats members of the public audit committee spoke out amid concerns their Nationalist colleagues had blocked criticism of how the merger of eight regional forces into Police Scotland in 2013 had been handled.
Publishing their own “stronger” version yesterday, Labour MSPs Hugh Henry and Ken Macintosh, Lib Dem Tavish Scott and Tory Mary Scanlon said it was not their job to put out a “flattering interpretation” .
They said the government failed to develop a full business case for the merger. And they said savings so far were “short term” and “not sustainable”.
The split emerged at the end of an inquiry by the SNP-dominated committee into the move to a single national force last year. Two versions of the public audit committee report were published yesterday – one by the SNP majority and another more critical “minority” report.
Committee convener Mr Henry said: “There’s a style that is beginning to emerge. There’s a discipline the like of which I’ve never seen before. From an SNP perspective, that’s commendable, but when that discipline says that the loyalty is to the party rather than to the facts and the public, then it begins to have a detrimental impact.
“There’s a cult developing here of obedience and slavishness which some governments and regimes elsewhere in the world would be proud to have, and it’s unfortunate we’re seeing this in 21st-century Scotland.”
The regional police forces were merged on 1 April last year. A new Scottish Police Authority (SPA) was set up to hold the force and chief constable to account. The Scottish Government said costs were set to hit £137 million by 2016-17, but with cumulative savings of £1.1 billion by 2026.
However, the committee heard that a full business case was not carried out and police did not develop alternative cost estimates. The official report, passed with the SNP majority, did contain criticism, but the minority report used tougher terms. It said while the force was on track to deliver savings, “these savings have been made in the absence of agreed longer-term financial and corporate strategies and there is a risk therefore that the savings that have been delivered are short term and not sustainable.”
The opposition said the entire committee system was being “enfeebled” as it was not designed for majority government.
Labour MSP Mr Macintosh said: “Never mind the fact that the parliamentary process might have weaknesses – they have been exploited by a government with a ruthless agenda to suppress dissent.”
Tory MSP Ms Scanlon added: “They [the Nationalists] want to close down debate, close down criticism, they want to sanitise anything that’s being said.”
Lib Dem Mr Scott suggested whips and ministerial aides should not take part in committees. “They wouldn’t dream of allowing that at Westminster, so why have it here?” he asked.
But SNP MSP James Dornan, who also sits on the committee, said: “This is nothing more than political opportunism from Labour. They’re criticising plans they wanted rushed through.”
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill said: “Reform is ensuring policing continues to perform excellently. Crime is at a 39-year low … with approximately £880m of savings already secured.”