The future of the counter-corruption unit matters to Parliament because its activities have been of national significance. MSPs have spent months scrutinising its unlawful spying on journalist sources. Scottish ministers were happy to cut the ribbon and open the unit as a vital service in 2013. In September, I asked the justice secretary whether the Government was at all concerned about the unit’s conduct. He dodged the question then, so I ask it again now: does he have any concerns about the conduct of Police Scotland’s counter-corruption unit?
Alison McInnes will be aware that the Scottish Police Authority has asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland to undertake a review of the counter-corruption unit, following last year’s investigation by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office. That review is presently taking place, so the most sensible thing for us all to do is to wait for its outcome. I have no doubt that, when the review is complete, the SPA and the chief constable will consider any measures that they believe are necessary for the unit.
It has been reported in the media that the unit’s powers will be handed to the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. If that is the case, the cabinet secretary will have to get involved, because the commissioner’s powers are set in statute. Will the cabinet secretary tell Parliament whether the Government has had any discussions with either Police Scotland or PIRC about such a legislative change?
It is always dangerous for a member to come to the chamber and base their question on what is contained in a newspaper report. I am sure that all politicians are well aware that newspaper reports are not always as accurate as some members may believe them to be.
As I said, we have not been made aware of any planned changes to the counter-corruption unit. I reiterate that the most sensible thing for us to do is allow HMICS to undertake its review. Once it has reported to the SPA, I have no doubt that the SPA will consider the findings, along with the chief constable’s view on any actions that should be taken.
The Scottish Police Federation and retired officers have raised a number of concerns, some with the Justice Committee, about the culture and work practices that have been adopted by the counter-corruption unit, including disproportionate investigations into people’s private lives, the use of detention up to seven hours and escorting people to washroom facilities during breaks in their interviews. Will the cabinet secretary engage with the SPA to ensure that human rights and natural justice are concepts to be extended to those who investigate allegations against police officers, to ensure proper proportionality?
I am aware of the evidence that was provided to the Justice Committee and I am also aware that PIRC requested specific evidence of such matters. It is my understanding that no evidence has been provided to PIRC on any particular incidences to date. If allegations are being made about how the counter-corruption unit has operated, or even how PIRC has operated, it is important that evidence is submitted, so that the issues can be considered.
Members have often stated that the SPA does not go ahead and get involved in matters that need to be reformed in Police Scotland or address issues that have been raised about Police Scotland. Here we have the SPA doing exactly what it should, which is asking HMICS to carry out a review of the counter-corruption unit. Once that is complete, the most appropriate and sensible thing to do is to wait for the report to be completed, at which point the SPA and Police Scotland should consider what measures should be taken. That demonstrates the governance process of the new single police force operating in the way that it should. The SPA should be looking into these matters, and that work is on-going. I have no doubt that it will consider HMICS’s report once it has been submitted.
The whole issue surrounding the transparency and accountability of the counter-corruption unit has raised questions about how easy it is for police officers with legitimate concerns to report those concerns in confidence. The public generally recognise that activity as whistleblowing. For the person who makes a disclosure to be covered by the definition of whistleblowing, they must believe two things. First, they must believe that they are acting in the public interest. Secondly, they must reasonably believe that the disclosure tends to show past, present or likely future wrongdoing. Does the cabinet secretary still support that definition? What action will he take to ensure that the SPA’s monitoring of police officers’ ability to take advantage of whistleblowing procedures is robust?
As the member will be well aware, such matters are largely operational responsibilities for Police Scotland. She asked about such matters when the Justice Committee took evidence from Chief Constable Phil Gormley recently, and he set out some of the issues that he is considering. Alongside the chief constable was the chair of the SPA, who said that the organisation was looking at how complaints are handled and the measures that it can take. In effect, the member is asking me a question that she has almost already asked the chief constable and the chair of the SPA. They provided her with an indication of the work that the SPA is doing internally in looking at those very issues. Given the role that the SPA has in the governance of Police Scotland, and given that the new chief constable is looking at those matters, I think that we should allow them to carry out that work to see how they can improve on the present arrangements.
I am always prepared to try to improve areas of our justice system, including within the police service, but, given that members are quick to criticise when they feel that the structures that we have put in place are not operating effectively, it is important that, when the police undertake work in such areas, we allow them to do that and to look at the evidence that has been provided to them in an effort to improve the existing system.