The SPA has developed, and is in the process of implementing, a significant programme of improvement, and the thematic inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland has found evidence of genuine progress on that over the past 18 to 24 months. That includes the appointment of experienced and talented individuals to the SPA’s board and Police Scotland’s leadership team. However, I recognise—as does the SPA—that that improvement journey must continue. The report helpfully highlights key areas of focus for the future, a number of which the SPA has already begun to address.
In June 2017, the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland published their 10-year policing strategy, “Policing 2026: Serving a Changing Scotland”, which set out a long-term plan for building a sustainable, modern and flexible police force. At the start of next year, that strategy will have to be refreshed to take account of the new strategic police priorities that set the overarching framework for policing in Scotland. The Scottish Government consultation on those priorities closes on Friday.
While I was listening to the cabinet secretary’s response, I started to wonder whether he had been reading a different report from the one that I read, because the verdict in that one was damning. It said that there were serious flaws in governance, in that the chair and a number of board members had been acting well outwith their core non-executive roles. There was also said to have been a “lack of rigour” in the SPA’s holding the chief constable to account, and a conflict of interests at its core.
Why there has been a complete failure on the part of the Government to highlight and manage the serious problems that have been detailed in the HMICS report
? Will the cabinet secretary set out a clear plan with a timeline for addressing its specific recommendations?
Given the picture that James Kelly has painted of the report, I genuinely question whether he has fully read it himself. In my opening remarks, I said that I recognise that the SPA has improvements to make—having read the HMICS report, I have no doubt about that. For the sake of brevity, I will not read out reams of quotes from it, but I highlight that the inspector said:
“The current SPA Chair and Board members bring a wealth of experience and skills from a range of professional backgrounds that can usefully be brought to bear on the governance of policing.”
Mr Kelly’s substantive point about executive and non-executive powers involves a good and serious question that it is appropriate to ask. That is why, in my immediate response to the HMICS report last week, I said that the Scottish Government has agreed with the SPA to look at its organisational, governance and accountability frameworks. I will keep James Kelly, other members of the Justice Committee and other justice spokespeople up to date on the timescales associated with that review.
In setting the culture and tone of an organisation, leadership rules are important. Bearing in mind his first response, does the cabinet secretary agree that it is unacceptable for the chair and a number of board members to act outwith their non-executive roles? Will he immediately set out a timeline for the review of such roles, to ensure that the chair and board members carry out their work appropriately?
As I have already said, I will give James Kelly details of the review that the SPA has agreed to carry out, which will look at the executive versus the non-executive space. Of course, the SPA board operates within the “On Board” principles. In fairness, I think that every one of us would recognise that the SPA has a unique role in that it performs scrutiny of the chief constable and also looks forensically at the delivery of certain policing functions.
It is also worth my saying that although I take very seriously what James Kelly has requested, and the Government will carry out that review, there is a fine line here. The SPA was created to be a buffer between operational policing and the Government, and it is right that that is so. I am happy to work jointly with the SPA to undertake such a review, but I certainly will not be stepping into a space where James Kelly might accuse me of interfering at the same time as telling me to involve myself. I am sure that he would be the first person to tell me that I was interfering.
Lastly, even the SPA’s harshest critics recognise the tireless hard work that the chair, Susan Deacon—who I am sure is well known to James Kelly—has done in that space. The SPA must and will improve, but it is in a remarkably better place under her leadership than it had been previously.
Again, the member is right to make that point. Previously, there was criticism of the SPA for holding the meetings in private. However, I think that it is absolutely right to say that Susan Deacon, under her leadership, has brought much more openness and transparency to the SPA. In fact, that is recognised in HMICS’s report. The inspector says that the SPA
“has made a number of changes and improvements over the last 18—24 months to improve the overall system of governance, including a revised Committee structure, a new Governance Framework, Standing Orders and Scheme of Delegation.”
The member’s specific question about the SPA is a matter to raise directly with it, but I certainly know from my conversations with Susan Deacon that, where the SPA can be open, public and transparent, it will be—with the understanding, which we all have, that some sensitive matters need to be discussed in private.
The cabinet secretary will be aware of the passage in the report that says:
“Some local authorities remain concerned that national policy decisions, and their impact locally, are not the subject of effective engagement and consultation and that there is a disconnect between local scrutiny and the SPA Board.”
Given that local engagement and maintaining local relationships is a key feature of the SPA, what steps will he take to resolve that very important matter?
The chair of the SPA, the chief constable and I have regular meetings, and we are all committed to that local accountability and to further devolution of policing to local communities. I am sure that the member has heard the chief constable say on many occasions that policing is only done with the consent of the people, so having people involved is hugely important.
I see John Finnie pointing to the report. The issue around governance is highlighted on page 5, where the chief inspector says that the SPA
“has improved its visibility and engagement with local authorities”,
but also, crucially—this is the member’s point—that it
“has recognised the need to improve its overall approach”.
I will, of course, take away what the report says. Some of the recommendations are for Government. Equally, however, most of them are for the SPA. The point about local accountability is an important one that is not lost on any of the triumvirate that are involved in policing.
Although most of the recommendations in the report are, as the cabinet secretary said, for the Scottish Police Authority to take forward, will the Scottish Government commit to considering its role in delivery, including providing on-going support to the authority as it addresses the issues? Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is important to recognise the findings in the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny report, which says that more equal access to specialist support and national capacity is a success story and that it has particularly benefited victims of crime such as domestic and sexual abuse?
Yes. Shona Robison makes a hugely important point. Those who represent particular victims of those terrible crimes, particularly rape and sexual offences, while of course calling for further improvement—they are right to do so—have said publicly and on the record that the investigations of those terrible crimes nationally, under Police Scotland, are in a better place compared with the position previously, under the legacy forces.
However, none of that takes away from the fact that the report makes for sobering reading—I do not doubt that. The recommendations that are for the Government will be taken forward, and of course the SPA will reflect on the majority of the recommendations, which are for it. I will continue to keep the Justice Committee updated on our progress.
I think that even Liam McArthur would have to accept that the SPA, as an organisation, has a unique function in statute. Although it is, I stress, still abiding by the “On Board” principles, it has a unique function in relation to scrutiny of the police and its dual role in supporting policing.
I say to Liam McArthur that I listened intently to his speech in the debate about police and fire reform that took place in the chamber a few weeks ago, and I will quote from it directly so that I am not misquoting. He said:
“Susan Deacon, for whom I have the utmost respect, is due considerable credit for many of the reforms that she has introduced since she took over as the chair of the SPA.”—[
, 12 September 2019; c 79.]
I think that all of us can recognise—as Liam McArthur clearly has, based on that quote—that Susan Deacon has done an excellent job in driving forward some really impressive change in the SPA.
Liam McArthur’s wider point is around what else has to be done. There are very clear recommendations, as we heard in James Kelly’s question, around the executive and non-executive space. We will do a review of that and other governance issues, and I promise to keep Liam McArthur and the rest of the Justice Committee informed of progress.
A recurring theme that has been identified is the limited ability of the SPA board to recognise issues of public interest and to hold Police Scotland to account when it comes to community policing. How will the Scottish Government increase the effectiveness of the SPA board to recognise those issues of community policing, and how will it move the issue forward?
Again, we will look at the recommendations carefully—clearly, the local element is hugely important to all of us. The feedback on local policing is very positive, and that is not just my view. I read with interest a letter in the
Greenock Telegraph on Monday 12 August from Councillor David Wilson, who is a Conservative councillor, not a Scottish National Party councillor. He said that he can only comment on the quite unanimous feedback from constituents that they feel more secure than they did in the past and often comment on the visibility of our police.
That is a really positive comment from someone who is on the ground—in this case, in Greenock.
I think that we are making positive progress in relation to policing at a local level, but that is not to take away from what HMICS has said and from what Gordon Lindhurst and others have said around the local element. Therefore, we will take forward those recommendations and I will keep members who have an interest in the matter updated on our progress.