Rarely in the history of any police force, including London’s Metropolitan Police at its worst, has any force performed so badly as has Police Scotland. Scandal after scandal from excessive illegal stop and search to armed forces on the street, from excessive centralisation to plain disorganisation has exposed Police Scotland to justified parliamentary and press scrutiny. It has reached the stage of lack of credibility where when performing well it receives little credit. Morale in the force will have slumped under the onslaught of ceaseless criticism and this must be worrying if it impacts on efficiency.
Already politicians, desperate for publicity, are calling for the resignation of Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House as if that is the answer. Of course, the Chief Constable must accept a great deal of the blame for the operations of the force. He got off to a bad start when he had an unnecessary power struggle with the then Chairman of the Scottish Police Authority over which body had operational oversight. Those calls for his resignation are misguided. He is near the end of his stint of office and he should be given the chance to put right some of the problems. Indeed, the only beneficiary from his enforced resignation would be Sir Stephen himself with his entitlement to a large dollop of compensation. It would be a waste of public money as well as futile.
The problem goes much deeper than Sir Stephen House. Here the Parliament, Ministers and Civil Servants must accept responsibility for the framework and legislation. To ‘retire’ Sir Stephen in a cosmetic move will do nothing to tackle the real difficulties of Police Scotland. These stem from over-centralisation. When creating a single national force, no account was paid to the reality that although Scotland is a small country, it nevertheless is a varied one. Different policing practices had been devised over the years to suit local conditions.
So from lumping all the regional forces into one, there were two avoidable consequences.
Delusions of Grandeur
Firstly, Police Scotland suffered from delusions of grandeur. It saw itself as the equivalent of the Met. and responsible to no one. Community policing got small shrift. It also became arrogant at top levels. The views of the public came second. Thus we had armed police parading around Inverness just as if they were part of a gendarmerie rather than as local police. A poor response to the Sheku Bayoh affair did not help. The final nail in the coffin was the disregarded report on the off road death on the A9 suggesting that the centralisation of call centres was a step too far and that co-ordination had become dislocated.
Secondly, questions must be asked: who made the appointments to Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority? Why was the head of the largest police force, Strathclyde given the job of Chief Constable when it was known that he was an authoritarian likely to impose controversial Strathclyde policing policies on other parts of the country? And why did the Civil Service who drafted the guidelines not perceive that there was a risk of a clash between Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority? All in all it was very poorly handled.
The Scottish Government must look beyond the current embarrassments before it proceeds to make new appointments to Police Scotland. It must alter the structures. Not everything in Police Scotland needs to be discarded. Changes to Scottish policing were necessary. There were too many police forces. There was need to have more effective central services made available to remove expensive duplication.
But the key change must be to restore community policing to local direction and control. This means changes to the roles of both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority. The latter body has proved toothless in promoting local policing principles over community policing. This is hardly surprising since it is a centralised quango. It has yet to justify its existence. Is it necessary?
At present, strategy, policy and direction are determined by the Chief Constable and his Senior Leadership Board of 16. They set the agenda that drives the force. Amongst that number, there are only three Assistant Chief Constables given local policing responsibilities for East, West and North. Any say they have in policy for communities is dwarfed by the influence of personnel with central responsibilities – and here lies the essence of the problem. There is far too little local input into what is a top-heavy managerial structure heavily dominated by senior officers and their technical directors. It goes a long way to explain why Police Scotland has lost touch. The management structure must be rebalanced.
Establish Four Regional Police Forces Under A Federal Structure
The clock cannot be put back. Most countries have local police as well as national organisations. Replacing the Leader or trimming the Leadership Team will not resolve the fundamental weaknesses embodied in the structure of Police Scotland. While retaining the benefits of a national structure through Police Scotland, power and direction must be devolved to quasi-autonomous local police forces, each under the control of a Chief Constable and subject to local oversight.
These local police forces will be representative of their communities. Taking geography and communities into account, I suggest four – Strathclyde; Lothian and Borders; Tayside, Central and Fife; and Grampian and Highland. But the configuration can be put out to consultation.
From then on, the federalised Police Scotland will be run by an executive Board consisting of the Chief Constable, a Depute, the four local Chief Officers and a Director of Finance, with a slimmed down directorate in attendance but without a vote. As for the Scottish Police Authority, its role needs to be re-examined in line with the decentralisation of Police Scotland. Indeed there is an argument that since it has been ineffective so far, its functions may be better assumed by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament and the quango disbanded with a saving of £2.6million per year. Some of its other duties can be re-allocated. Given the problems with Police Scotland and the frequent summoning of the Chief Constable to give evidence to the Justice Committee, this process has already commenced. That has been done on a politicised level which is natural given the problems but unfortunate. Granted a quasi-judicial role similar to that exercised by local authority planning and licensing committees and equipped with expert research back-up, that may serve the purpose of oversight. If that happens, then the powers of the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner and Inspectorate may need to be strengthened to secure a proper balance.
What will not serve is an attempt to paper over the cracks by merely appointing a new Chief Constable or Chair of the Scottish Police Authority while failing to address the depth of the problems stemming from over-centralisation. It is time for ‘root and branch’ reform.
Summary of Recommendations
1. Decentralise Police Scotland on a federal basis by re-establishing regional forces in 4 areas. Suggested are police units in 1. Edinburgh and the Borders; 2. Strathclyde; 3. Tayside Central & Fife; and 4. Grampian and Highlands and Islands.
2. Each regional unit to have a Chief Constable.
3. Local authorities to exercise joint oversight.
4. Police Scotland to be run by a federal Executive Board consisting of a Chief Constable as executive chair, a Deputy Chief Constable as vice chair, the four regional Chief Constables and a Director of Finance. Other specialist officers and directors may be in attendance but have no decision-making role.
5. Abolition of the Scottish Police Authority.
6. Transfer of national oversight to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee in a quasi-judicial capacity and equip it with research back up.
7. Enhance the independent tasks of the Police and Investigations Review Commissioner and the Inspectorate.
Director, Options for Scotland