New year, new woes as Police Scotland’s panto goes on and on
AT this time of year, it’s traditional for families, cooped up together over the Christmas break, to have the occasional argument.
In your home, it might have been Brexit that sparked a heated clash of opinions among well-refreshed in-laws.
But spare a thought for the most dysfunctional family in Scotland — the police service — which is in the grip of full-scale meltdown.
A year ago, I wrote that the force was facing a tough 2017 — much worse than 2016 — a prediction that turned out to be a huge understatement.
At the risk of sounding like Rikki Fulton’s lugubrious Reverend IM Jolly, 2017 was a ‘helluva year’ for Police Scotland — but 2018 is likely to be far worse.
The festive stramash among the police ‘family’ — the force and its assorted watchdogs — centres on Phil Gormley, who (you might dimly recall) is Chief Constable, earning £214,000 a year.
He took ‘special leave’ back in September amid multiple bullying investigations, but has been trying in vain to get back to his desk.
As the Mail revealed in November, the Scottish Police Authority’s (SPA) then chairman Andrew Flanagan tried to engineer the return of Mr Gormley, despite the ongoing probes.
Mr Flanagan was backed by SPA chief executive John Foley, who wrote to Mr Gormley on November 8 saying that the board had agreed it would be ‘beneficial’ if he came back ‘as soon as practicable’.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, knowing this would be politically suicidal, put a stop to the plan — a move that led to a furious response from Mr Gormley.
On November 14, the chief’s lawyer David Morgan wrote to Mr Flanagan, warning that his client may launch a judicial review of the decision to block his return, and calling the ‘intervention’ by Scottish ministers ‘unlawful’.
It’s worth noting that Mr Foley, who earned up to £120,000 a year, announced in August that he would step down, after an official report criticised his ‘shortcomings’, and is now controversially in line for an early retirement payment of £43,470, and six months’ pay in lieu of notice.
Mr Flanagan had been accused of being a bully who ran the SPA like the Kremlin and quit in June, but stayed on until early December when his successor, Professor Susan Deacon, took over.
Most policing insiders and commentators believe Mr Gormley will never return, and that his deputy Iain Livingstone, who has the support of Mr Matheson, senior colleagues, and many rank-and-file officers, will take over permanently.
Mr Livingstone cancelled his retirement plans when Mr Gormley began his ‘special leave’, and since then has cemented his reputation as a highly capable leader.
Just imagine the frosty atmosphere among his senior colleagues if Mr Gormley did come back to work — subzero would be an understatement.
His relations with Mr Matheson would also be more than a little strained.
And don’t forget that Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins, who is in charge of armed policing, has been suspended after being accused of the unauthorised discharge of a firearm, among other claims.
As the turmoil continues, top brass and politicians deny on a near-daily basis that there is a ‘crisis’ — a claim that sounds more and more hollow with each repetition.
Last month (DEC), Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Derek Penman, condemned ‘media scrutiny’ of the force’s leadership woes, saying it might put off future candidates for top police jobs.
This overlooks the fact that potential candidates for these roles — looking on at the viper’s nest the upper echelons of the service have become — may have been dissuaded by factors other than ‘media scrutiny’.
Scrutiny certainly hasn’t been high on the agenda of the SPA, the ‘civilian oversight’ body for Police Scotland, and supposedly a fierce custodian of the public purse.
It emerged in December that the SPA had sanctioned a payment of £67,000 to help Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick move house, and generously paid her £53,000 tax bill with public money.
MSPs have summoned former SPA bosses back to Holyrood to be grilled about this arrangement, and other aspects of their alleged financial mismanagement.
Bear in mind that public sector watchdog Audit Scotland, which uncovered the Fitzpatrick scandal, had warned of a looming deficit of nearly £200million back in December 2016 — hardly the climate for funding a senior officer’s house move.
Then, just as the Scottish parliament began its Christmas break, a bombshell report by Durham Constabulary into illegal spying at Police Scotland was snuck out online — heavily redacted, but utterly damning in its conclusions.
Authored by an English chief constable, it severely criticised the single force after its Counter-Corruption Unit (CCU) spied on journalists’ sources.
The unit was said to have begun the snooping mission because of a ‘misplaced fear’ of leaks from an inquiry into the 2005 murder of 27-year-old Emma Caldwell.
The fallout from the affair has seen seven officers under investigation as part of a separate, ongoing inquiry by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
But at least this crucial information is in the public domain, albeit in highly censored form — so that’s a tentative sign of greater openness, surely?
Well, not really — research by the Scottish Tories last week found that since 2015–16, Police Scotland spent £77,493 on challenging freedom of information requests.
And last Friday, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) claimed the SPA had failed to properly investigate complaints against several senior officers, and accused it of failing to respond correctly to complaints.
Police Scotland — which ‘celebrates’ its fifth anniversary on April 1 — also faces the possibility of a double prosecution in 2018.
The two cases involved are the death in custody of Sheku Bayoh in 2015, amid allegations of police brutality, and the M9 tragedy, also in 2015, when Lamara Bell was left dying by the roadside for three days following a car crash in which her partner John Yuill also died.
The Crown Office is considering two PIRC reports into these tragedies, which could result in legal action against the force.
Meanwhile, Mr Matheson looks on at the Frankenstein’s monster his predecessor Kenny MacAskill created.
So, too, do the thousands of ordinary officers whose dedication to the job is mocked by the failings of their superiors, and of the politicians responsible for much of the mess.
The SNP was warned that the amalgamation of the eight regional forces would make a prized public service more susceptible to political interference than ever before.
Now that the SPA has been definitively revealed as a puppet of the Nationalists (just look at the Gormley row), it is clear that this early concern was well-founded.
Professor Deacon, a former Labour Health Minister, wants the hapless quango to ‘turn outwards’, suggesting that her role will be higher-profile than previous SPA chairmen (for the right reasons, she hopes).
The question that remains is whether she can take charge of an out-of-control political experiment — and reconcile the warring factions that have transformed Scottish policing into such a grotesque pantomime.