Who’s going to police the police?

The developing revelations of a failure of corporate governance at News International and the allegedly corrupt practices involving public authorities, including the police, should serve as wake-up call to the need to examine the arrangements in preparation for the single Scottish police force.

We should remember it took a newspaper report to open up this cesspit of corruption affecting the media and the police, not the authorities – despite the presence of a Home Secretary, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for Constabulary, Crown Prosecution Service, Police Complaints Commission, Press Complaints Commission and Metropolitan Police Authority, comprising local councillors.

Across Scotland we now have the opportunity to deliver proper public scrutiny of the oversight of policing at national level and accountability at local level. But the SNP Government seems determined to maintain a service authority arrangement largely chosen by the minister, with a convener and chief constable reporting via civil servants to the minister before eventually parliament’s involvement. This is not a healthy situation for the future.

A single Scottish police force will be a powerful body to be managed without open and positive public scrutiny. That absence of an effective scrutiny was one of the weaknesses properly attributed to the current local police authorities.

I see no genuine attempt to examine any radical form of oversight in the current proposals. What the civil servants have delivered is a model created to control and influence, particularly in relation to budget and policy. In a model maintained by, and on behalf of, government there is little encouragement to challenge wrong thinking or reveal wrong doing.

The Scottish Government regularly force-feeds public debate late, with the outcome that a proper consideration of the way forward is limited. It spends more time balancing the interests of special pleadings groups such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Police Federation and civil servants. We should, however, be considering how we deliver police operational independence, alongside proper accountability and public oversight. This should not be about career development and personal interest.

In the past four years I have had less than two hours discussions with those concerned with these proposals, and now in the few weeks left there is a rush to achieve consensus. These proposals are undemocratic, designed for the comfort of the executive at a cost in terms of parliamentary scrutiny. They are debilitating to genuine accountability.

MSPs from all parties should be concerned about the current proposals as they affect their communities. I hope the government will find the means to engage positively at this key moment in the history of Scottish policing. Governments constantly talk about learning lessons – how about learning one now?

Graeme Pearson

(MSP, South of Scotland)