Scandals, cuts – no wonder the Justice Secretary is invisible…
By Graham Grant
DUST off the bunting: Scotland’s national police force turned five at the weekend, a significant milestone in the life of the single service.
You probably struggled to find the time to mark the occasion on Sunday amid the Easter celebrations, but no matter – there’s time yet to raise a glass.
Police Scotland itself and indeed its creator, the SNP, have been strangely quiet about the anniversary, but then they have been, well, rather busy.
Nor is there much evidence of partying at the ‘civilian oversight’ body, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), but then the staff kitty has taken a hammering of late.
The former chief executive John Foley quit with a controversial payoff last year, following a watchdog’s criticism of his ‘shortcomings’, while chairman Andrew Flanagan stepped down after a bullying row.
There wasn’t much sign of a fiesta atmosphere at Police Scotland either, but then it is facing a cut of 100 officers, with a further reduction in manpower to come.
Assurances that frontline policing won’t suffer already seem hollow, and haven’t convinced the Scottish Police Federation, which dismissed the ‘fag packet calculations’.
But it’s hard to be shocked at the conspicuous lack of revelry among top brass after a torrid five years for an organisation permanently in the grip of turmoil.
Rank-and-file officers have got on with their demanding jobs while the upper echelons were plunged into meltdown by the departure of two Chief Constables.
Sir Stephen House, a vocal cheerleader for the unification of the eight territorial forces, was the first chief to lead the force but quit amid a series of high-profile scandals.
Among them were the M9 tragedy in 2015, when a woman was left dying for three days after a road crash, following alleged call-handling blunders, and the death of Sheku Bayoh, in the same year, amid claims of police brutality.
These cases remain in the hands of the Crown Office after extensive enquiries by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner, raising the possibility of the single force facing a double prosecution.
Sir Stephen paid the price of an autocratic style of leadership which earned a thinly veiled public rebuke from Nicola Sturgeon, who said in April 2015 that no chief constable should be a ‘law unto themselves’.
He quit in August 2015, but is now Assistant Commissioner at his old employer, the Metropolitan Police in London, on a salary of £190,000 a year – proving that rehabilitation, at least of reputations, is indeed possible in the world of criminal justice.
His successor, Phil Gormley, had been deputy director-general of the National Crime Agency, and as an outsider was untainted by multiple scandals.
Hopes were high that he could restore faith in the reputation of the fledgling institution.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson was among those who believed a corner would be turned.
He said that ‘while Police Scotland has faced challenges, I am confident that, under Phil’s leadership, it will continue to develop positively’.
It did develop, but hardly ‘positively’; last summer, Mr Gormley was the subject of a bullying complaint and a slew of other grievances followed, forcing him to step aside on ‘special leave’ in September.
He quit in February after a bitter political row when it emerged the SPA had attempted to bring him back amid ongoing investigations, only to be thwarted by Mr Matheson, who was accused of acting unlawfully.
The entire episode was cloaked in secrecy, key meetings were unminuted, and Mr Matheson somehow slalomed his way through proliferating demands for his scalp, leaving the credibility of the SPA in tatters.
The recurring theme over the last five years has been the encroachment of government into the supposedly independent realm of policing.
There were fears from the beginning of the Police Scotland project that the single force, and the SPA, would fall prey to high-level political interference – warnings that were ignored by the SNP.
Its motivation, as outlined by former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, was to make a ‘virtue out of necessity’ – pooling the resources of the old territorial forces and at the same time saving cash.
But this was a political choice – there was no overriding reason why such a crucial public service should have been selected for cuts that saw officers reduced to driving patrol cars which they said were held together by duct tape.
Indeed, if saving cash was the objective, what about the cavalier approach to taxpayers’ money, including an SPA decision to use £67,000 of taxpayers’ money to help Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick move house – (and to pay her £53,000 tax bill)?
An ongoing employment tribunal, launched by an SPA whistleblower, has heard claims of alleged misuse of public funds by the SPA, including a redundancy payment of £165,000 to an official who was facing prosecution for domestic abuse.
The cuts have come elsewhere, in a cull of civilian workers, and with a move to axe up to 400 officers (the 100 announced last week is just the beginning), despite rising violent and sexual crime.
Police chiefs and ministers promise officers previously tied up with ‘back office’ admin roles will be freed up for the frontline.
But there are signs of flagging public confidence in an institution that has lurched between crises since its inception.
Last week Scottish Government figures revealed that nearly two in every three crimes are not reported to police.
Soaring numbers of criminals involved in property crimes such as vandalism, theft and break-ins are never punished, partly because victims believed officers ‘would not have been interested’.
Tough questions are called for, but Professor Susan Deacon, SPA chairman, has developed something of a bunker mentality despite having held the job for just four months, and is reluctant to face media scrutiny.
And yet I listened in bemusement last week when an SPA member at a public board meeting in Edinburgh grilled top brass about ‘temporary traffic restriction orders’.
The ‘pinch yourself’ moment came when Professor Deacon congratulated police accountants for being nominated for an award honouring excellence in public finance (they didn’t win).
Well, every lengthy meeting needs a little levity…
Except that this is a farce that borders on the tragicomic – and in reality it is the story of a botched political experiment that has resulted in a haemorrhaging of morale among a wearied workforce that deserves far better.
Perhaps the most salutary lesson from the last five years is that the architects of this mess have escaped largely unscathed – and in some cases with comfortable nest-eggs and ‘golden goodbyes’.
For all its supposed innovation and radicalism, Police Scotland proves that even when it attempts ambitious reform, the public sector will always revert to what it knows best: political failure, rank incompetence – and snouts in the trough.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail.