1. We have had the resignation of two chief constables, we are on to our third head of the Scottish Police Authority, we have an investigations body that is overwhelmed by complaints, and we have a Cabinet Secretary for Justice pulling the strings when it suits him. Can the First Minister really say that the single police force has been well managed over the past five years?
Our police officers the length and breadth of the country do an exemplary job. It is because they are doing that exemplary job that we have rates of crime in Scotland that are at a more than 40-year low.
Of course there are issues in the leadership of Police Scotland; I have acknowledged that in Parliament, as has the justice secretary. The chief constable tendered his resignation yesterday. That is entirely a matter for him and I respect that decision. It allows for policing in Scotland to move forward with a clear focus on delivering the long-term strategy—which, of course, Phil Gormley helped to develop—and that is what will happen now. It is for the Scottish Police Authority to decide what further consideration is appropriate in terms of the timescale for appointing a new chief constable.
I hope that we can all continue to support our police officers as they do the important job across the country of keeping us all safe.
I take my hat off to the rank-and-file officers who do the exemplary job that they do, but I think that they deserve better than they have had in the past five years.
Parliament voted to create a single police force, but Parliament also has a duty to learn from mistakes, when they are exposed, and to put them right. There is an obvious flaw—the head of the SPA is supposed to be independent of Government, yet it is the justice secretary who appoints that person. As this affair has shown us, that same justice secretary can pull the head of the SPA into a room and make him change his mind. Does the First Minister think that that sounds like true independence?
First, as I have said on two previous occasions at First Minister’s question time, Ruth Davidson is simply wrong in her assertions about the actions of the justice secretary and has produced no evidence to substantiate the claims that she is making.
The justice secretary behaved entirely appropriately; he asked questions about the process that the SPA had followed and when those questions could not be answered, the SPA and the then chair of the SPA reconsidered the decision.
As I have said to Ruth Davidson before, if she continues to maintain that she thinks that the justice secretary acted inappropriately in doing what he did, logically her position must be that the justice secretary should not have asked those questions and the then chief constable should have been allowed to return to work the following day, without the senior command having been informed, without the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner having been consulted about the impact on the on-going investigation, and without any steps having been taken to ensure the welfare of officers who had made complaints. I do not think that that would have been the right course of action. I will leave Ruth Davidson to explain why, as it seems, she thinks that it would.
Of course, we now have a new chair of the SPA in place. We have to act within the law in making such appointments—the process is laid down in law. However, a member of the Scottish Parliament was nominated by the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing to take part in that process. The Government was happy to accommodate that and we are open to looking at how further changes can be made. We have to be frank in telling Parliament that substantial changes to that appointments process would require primary legislation, but we are open to discussing that. I am sure that the debate will be taken forward in the months ahead.
What happened in between was that an MSP was appointed to take part in the process. Therefore, in that intervening period, the change that was made was one that could be made within the law that we are, frankly, bound by in making the appointment.
Ruth Davidson may think—she may well be right—that there are in place for other bodies different processes that would be preferable. The point is that the process that we have to abide by right now is laid down in statute. We cannot simply ignore it. If we want to make more substantive changes in the future, we will need to do so through primary legislation. It would be entirely appropriate for Parliament to consider that, but that is what would be required.
On the appointment that has just been made, we involved Parliament in a way that is consistent with the law by which we are bound. That was the right thing to do. We now have a new chair of the SPA in place: I hope that we will all support her in getting on with the job that she is doing. She has made an excellent start in that job.
The First Minister stands here saying again, five months after she previously stood here saying it, that she cannot go further because that would require a change in the law. Guess what, First Minister. This is a Parliament, and changing the law is what we do. If the First Minister is serious about strengthening the structure and oversight of the single police force, having the SPA’s chair appointed by Parliament and not at the grace of ministers—with or without a token person there from the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing—would be a good place to start.
The First Minister has said throughout the process that she is not unsympathetic. I tell the First Minister that if she brings forward a change in the law, she will have support from all Conservative members and we can pass that change in the law together. I make her that offer in good faith. Will she act on it?
First, I say to Ruth Davidson that Mary Fee is the chair of Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing and was the MSP who took part in the process. Mary Fee and I are political opponents and we have many disagreements, but I do not think that she was a token appointment. She was there to do a job: she did it appropriately and she did it well. [
Of course, we can consider whether legislative change would be appropriate. I suggest that it is proper to consider that fully and robustly. Why should we take time? It is because right now we have a new chair of the Scottish Police Authority, who is at the start of her term of office. She is doing an excellent job and we should get behind her in that. I think that we should consider, in the fullness of time, before we come to appoint a new chair, whether changes are necessary. That will be the right and proper way to do things—which is probably why it is not the way that is being proposed by the Scottish Conservatives.
Let us look at the timeline for this appointment and at how other statutory watchdogs are appointed—for example, the Scottish Information Commissioner. That commissioner is selected by a cross-party panel that is approved by Parliament. As a result, in the words of the Minister for Parliamentary Business, Joe FitzPatrick,
“The commissioner is independent of the Government” and is able to function
“without fear or favour.”—[
, 21 June 2017; c 38.]
He is right. That is exactly what we need from a Scottish Police Authority chair, as well.
The First Minister is correct to say that, five months ago, every party in the chamber, bar the SNP, signed up for Parliament to be in charge of appointing the SPA chair, to take it out of the hands of ministers and—like the appointment of the information commissioner—to put it in the hands of the whole Parliament. Five months ago, she said that she would consider that. Today, she has said the same. What has happened in between?