Susan Deacon urges police board to reflect on their position

Pressure is growing on long-serving members of the beleaguered Scottish Police Authority board to resign their positions as part of an overhaul of the organisation.

Susan Deacon. Picture: John Devlin
Susan Deacon. Picture: John Devlin

Holyrood’s audit committee has written to the police oversight body asking for those who have “presided over mistakes” in the past to consider their futures.

In an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday, SPA chair Susan Deacon said it was important that members of the board “reflect carefully” on their positions.

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And she said there was a need to review how misconduct complaints are dealt with in Scottish policing – including whether investigations should cease after a senior officer’s resignation – following the controversy surrounding former chief constable Phil Gormley.

Last month, the convener of the Scottish Parliament’s audit committee, Labour MSP Jenny Marra, wrote to the SPA expressing a lack of confidence in some long-serving members.

It is understood the criticism was intended for deputy chair Nicola Marchant and board member David Hume.

While Marchant has since resigned her position, Hume, a former chief executive of Scottish Borders Council, remains in post.

In a further letter sent this week, Marra said: “I note Dr Marchant’s resignation and wish to enquire, in the interests of better governance in the future, whether other board members who presided over mistakes in the past are similarly considering their positions.”

Asked about mistakes that had been made in the past by the SPA, Deacon, a former Labour health minister, said she was “surrounded by lessons to be learnt”, including how the investigations into bullying allegations levelled against Gormley were handled.

On the question of Hume’s continued presence on the board, she said: “My aim for the future is to have a board where parliamentary committees can have confidence. As far as continuing board members are concerned, what I’ve made clear to them is that it’s important to recognise the failings there have been… and it’s important that people take responsibility for where there have been found to be shortcomings. When those circumstances arise, I think it’s important people reflect carefully on their position.”

The SPA, which was set up to manage the £1.1 billion police budget and hold the chief constable to account, has endured months of criticism over its performance, leading to the departure of its former chair, Andrew Flanagan, and chief executive, John Foley, last year.

After his departure, it emerged Foley had received a £57,000 golden handshake payment on top of an early retirement payment of £43,470.

An ongoing employment tribunal has heard claims that during Foley’s time in charge, a senior executive at the SPA received a £165,000 payoff weeks after being arrested for domestic abuse.

Whistleblower Amy McDonald has also told the tribunal that Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick asked for taxpayer-funded relocation expenses to be paid by cash transfer.

Fitzpatrick, who is due to retire in the summer, was paid £67,000 by the SPA after transferring from the Metropolitan Police and also had a personal tax liability of £53,000 paid in 2016/17.

Deacon, who took up her position in December, was last week joined by seven new appointments to the board, including Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, and Mary Pitcaithly, who was chief counting officer for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Each will be paid £300 per day for 60 days a year, earning £18,000.

She said the board had previously failed to ask the right questions of senior police officers during public meetings.

“I think the board meetings could be massively better and the questioning could be so much better,” she said.

“The SPA board has a long way to go to have as its modus operandus a style of probing and questioning which is pitched in the right way both to elicit the right kind of information out of Police Scotland, but also to shine a light in a way that makes sense to the man or woman in the street.”

She said a decision taken by her predecessor – later reversed – to hold the majority of the SPA’s meetings in private had been “very damaging” for the organisation. But asked if the entire organisation should be overhauled, she said: “No. I do think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get it functioning in the way it should. Fundamentally, the structure is right.”

Former chief executive Foley took early retirement after a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) raised concerns about his leadership and described key relationships as “dysfunctional”.

After an outcry about the size of his payoff, the SPA said it had “no option” but to make the payment or face possible legal action.

Asked if she thought it was right for Foley to receive the financial package he did despite being criticised for his performance, Deacon said: “I wasn’t here. I have looked, obviously, at the Audit Scotland work that has been done on this and the parliamentary scrutiny. My concern has been to ensure that any decisions taken on my watch are carried out with proper due process.

“I can’t change decisions that were taken before I started in this role, but I can learn from them.”

The SPA is due to begin the recruitment process for Police Scotland’s next chief constable in the summer following the departure of Gormley.

The former deputy director of the National Crime Agency resigned from the £214,000-a-year post last month amid allegations of bullying.

His departure meant that five separate gross misconduct investigations, reported to have cost the taxpayer £57,000, were unable to reach a conclusion.

There have been calls for the police regulations to be brought into line with England and Wales, where disciplinary proceedings can still take place even if an officer decides to retire while under investigation.

“There’s a need to reflect on many aspects of the complaints and investigations process,” said Deacon.

“I see the need for quite considerable review and reflection on all of that, not least in the experience we’ve had of individual cases that have arisen over the first five years of Police Scotland.”

Deacon said the appointment of the next chief constable would be “utterly pivotal” but she would not be drawn on whether the ideal candidate should have experience of working in Scotland.