Police Scotland set-up commission would create uncertainty, MSPs told

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Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has dismissed calls for a new commission to examine the set-up of Police Scotland, insisting such a move would only create more “uncertainty”.

Mr Matheson defended the national force after Liberal Democrats raised a motion in Holyrood stating they did “not have confidence in the structure of both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to deliver resilient and accountable policing at a strategic level”.

Lib Dem justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: “We do not have confidence in those structures and they need change.”

He described Police Scotland as being “an organisation in financial distress operating in a structure that is not fit for purpose”.

The debate took place at a time when Police Scotland is without some of its most senior staff, with the chief constable on “special leave” while one of his assistants has been suspended.

A new chair has been installed at the SPA, with former Labour health minister Susan Deacon replacing Andrew Flanagan, who quit after concerns were raised about governance and transparency.

Mr McArthur laid the blame for the problems in the police with the creation of the single force in 2013, when the Scottish Government merged eight regional services.

However, Mr Matheson said: “The choice faced in creating Police Scotland was one of transforming to protect the frontline, or allowing the frontline to wither due to austerity.

“I remain in no doubt we have chosen the right course.

“I recognise that major reform always brings challenges. Nevertheless, policing in Scotland continues to perform well.”

The Justice Secretary said pressure on public spending had contributed to the creation of the single force, criticising the Lib Dems for their role in coalition government with the Conservatives.

Mr Matheson said: “This was delivered in the context of real-terms cuts to the Scottish Budget delivered by the UK Government, a process started by the last Tory/Lib Dem coalition.”

He also hit out at the Liberal Democrats, and particularly former chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, for the coalition’s refusal to refund VAT payments to the service.

“Danny Alexander, now Sir Danny Alexander, declined all our our attempts to reclaim the VAT and refused to engage with the Scottish Police Federation on this very issue,” he said.

“So, when the Lib Dems talk about pressures on our police service, they should take a good look at themselves, given the financial pressures they helped create when in government.”

On Liberal Democrat calls for a commission to look at Police Scotland and its structure, the Justice Secretary rejected the “uncertainty that would be created by another review of policing structures in Scotland”.

Mr McArthur told MSPs the “succession of resignations, suspensions and early retirements at the top of both Police Scotland and the SPA” had “hardly enhanced” confidence in the service

While he stressed his party fully supported officers and staff who “carry out difficult and often dangerous jobs on our behalf, day in, day out”, he said the move to a single force had “done them no favours at all”.

He blasted Mr Matheson’s predecessor, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, and also Sir Stephen House, who was the first chief constable of the new force.

Mr McArthur said: “T he root of the problems can indeed be traced back very directly to the legislation driven through this parliament by the then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, a man quite happy to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

“To compound matters, Mr MacAskill then chose Sir Stephen House to head up the new national force, someone even less inclined to build consensus or listen to others than the man who appointed him.

“Add to that a single police authority, the body tasked with overseeing the new force, which appeared unclear of its responsibilities, largely dysfunctional and prone to a culture of secrecy.

“Is it any wonder then we have seen the problems we have over the last five years?”

Conservative MSP Liam Kerr said his party agreed the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 should be reviewed, arguing it had “effectively hardwired flaws” into the governance structure of policing.

“Amongst some there is a perception that the SPA is an extension of the Scottish Government … whether or not that is accurate, it’s an unhealthy perception,” he said.

“Policing operates by collective public consent and the public have to know that those in whom they trust are operating free from political influence.”

He described the Lib Dem proposal to set up an independent commission as “sensible”.

Labour’s Claire Baker said there was an “urgent need” to strengthen accountability, transparency and autonomy in both Police Scotland and the SPA.

“The SPA needs to regain the public’s confidence, it needs to demonstrate that it is robustly autonomous from government and that it is robust in its scrutiny of Police Scotland,” she said.

“It has an important role to play and in recent months it has become the story rather than doing its job effectively.”

Green MSP John Finnie, a former police officer, said he took “grave exception” to some parts of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary motion, describing it as “an overt attack on Police Scotland”.

He said it was disappointing that the party does not have confidence in the structure of the force “to deliver resilient and accountable policing at a strategic level”.

“Of all aspects of policing for the Liberal Democrats to focus this on, on the strategic level I find peculiar,” he said.

“Organised crime, human trafficking and terrorism are the very elements that individual forces weren’t able to deal with and were required to be dealt with collectively.”