iScot Article

My first ever magazine, or newspaper opinion piece. As good or bad as it is, I’m really pleased it got published. Thank you iScot!

Everybody wants to change the world.

Well, most of us do. It’s that fundamental human urge to travel ever onwards. A river of life thing, bound with the laws of the universe, where time travels only forwards and where we can never go back.

It’s the opposite of stasis. A moribund state of mind, unhealthy and dull. Much better for the human spirit to feel that satisfaction of leaving this world a better place than we entered it.

Whatever drives us, it’s a potent spirit, insatiable and indomitable. Science and politics, art and technology. Whatever the field of human endeavour, change is the only constant.

Change, of course, can be revolutionary, but revolution tends to conjure up images of conflict, or profound struggle. Chaos and anarchy. Altogether messy and disruptive.

It’s why we prefer evolution. Measured and controlled. Much more sustainable. Our brightest political and business leaders have noted that too. Take Soichiro Honda. Mr Honda knew a thing or two about change. He lived by the mantra of ‘Evolution not Revolution’. His multinational corporation grew from tiny beginnings to global giant, gradually and thoughtfully. Such was his success you’ll see that by-word in corporate brochures and vision statements around the globe.

So, change is in our nature. Progress never ceases. Evolution is the best way to achieve the benefits of change.

Take Police Scotland for example…

Those of us familiar with playing our music via a rotating turntable will recognise the scratch of a wayward needle.

It’s had a rocky start. The resignation of Phil Gormley, the second Chief Constable since inception, does not augur well. At the outset there was a public spat between Stephen House and the SPA chair over who controlled what. That was closely followed by the mishandling of public opinion over the deployment of firearms officers and the furore over stop and search. Mistakes made in the handling of a 101 call led to the tragic death of Lamara Bell and heaped further pressure on the new force.

Clearly there have been questions over the style and competence of its leaders. These have detracted from the excellent work carried out by operational officers and staff. Crime is at an all time low. Public satisfaction remains high. The newly published HMICS review of covert policing has highlighted the consistency that Police Scotland has brought to this sensitive area of policing. So we can take some comfort that our new force is operationally effective, still delivers a good service and enjoys the support of the public.

Clearly all is not well at the top though. The SPA has an important role and has not delivered in the way that we would have a right to expect. Questions of transparency, effectiveness and accountability have arisen. Two chairs have moved on under a cloud. That’s two chairs and two chiefs. It should all have been much better than this.

The SPA is an unelected body, its members are selected by the Scottish Government. They are a mixed bunch. Some harbour ambitions to have more control over the operational running of the force. It’s a view at odds with the necessary autonomy of policing, which needs to be separated from short term, politically motivated, policies.

It doesn’t help that the SPA possesses the DNA of the body that preceded it, the Scottish Police Services Authority. In the run up to April 2013, the SPSA must have looked like a reasonable template for the new force. It had been created in 1990’s to oversee centralised shared policing services, such as forensics, police training and ICT. Anachronistically, it was also given oversight of the highly sensitive operations of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency.

However, the SPSA was beset by many problems. Negative comments from Audit Scotland, resignations of key members, high profile criticisms from senior police officers, all against the background of underperformance and lack of leadership. A former chair had created unnecessary tensions by seeking control over aspects of operational policing. Sound familiar?

Policing has been on a long journey. From the creation of the first tiny forces in the 19th Century, to the burgh and city forces of the early 20th Century, there has been change and consolidation. This continued into the burgh and county models that operated until regionalisation in 1975. Regionalisation then brought us the eight forces we became so familiar with-though that process didn’t run smoothly.

The newly created Strathclyde Police suffered growing pains. Officers resented centralisation and there were complaints of the ‘Glasgow-isation’ of the force. Ironic given that Glasgow officers simultaneously baulked at the intrusion of the ‘Dumbarton Mafia’ – the new Chief and others having previously commanded that force. Officers in rural areas, especially islands like Mull and Islay, were used to greater autonomy and a different style of policing. They felt the homogenised approaches most keenly and viewed the one size fits all approach as a mistake. Nothing new under the sun it seems, though those describing the ‘Strathclyde-isation’ of Scottish policing are missing one key point. It was the ‘Housification’ of Scottish policing. A process initiated in Strathclyde and then transposed to the new force. Strathclyde merely experienced it first.

The amalgamation of the former eight forces and the SCDEA into a single national force, came about for a number of reasons. Mainly, it was the pursuit of an efficient model of policing and the pressure to save money. No one who is a critic of the single force can look back to the former eight forces with rose coloured spectacles. Their creation was prompted by the same ideals.

Scottish policing has been in a process of continual change. Of rationalisation and adaptation. As a service it has constantly reorganised itself to meet emerging challenges, new legislation and the ever increasing burden of public expectation. It hasn’t always been smooth and there have been turbulence along the way, but problems iron out over time as adjustments are made to the new realities.

The move to a single force was a logical step. A three force model was mooted. But that was regionalisation by another name. A single force was supported by the main parties. The Conservative and Labour parties had both put forward promises to enact such a model. So, consensus there at least. The Lib Dems were sceptical and that reflected concerns that centralisation would distance policing from those outwith the central belt. There is something in that I think. These same concerns existed around the time of regionalisation and we should have learned the lessons of that previous experience.

In any case, somewhere along the way to the new force we lost something. The relationship between locally elected representatives and the police. I don’t mean the established relationships at operational level. Those continue. It’s the strategic links that have suffered. From the age of ‘city fathers’, to the town and burgh councils and their regional successors, a form of local accountability was maintained. Policing was embedded in local democracy. The police and fire committees of the former forces were constituted of locally elected councillors. The link between police leaders and local democracy was clearer and well understood. The Tri-Partite arrangements of police, local and national government had a balanced look and feel.

Now, we are witnesses to a lack of cohesion between the new force and the SPA. The absence of stability can be viewed as a symptom of a deeper problem and that problem is Governance. The departure from a tried and tested model to the adoption of one that was morphed from the SPSA was understandable in terms of convenience. It looked like a workable compromise. Now we know it doesn’t work and something needs to change.

On 1st April it will be five years since the creation of Police Scotland. It should have reached a period of stability and in confident readiness for the next five. But, severe pressures remain. It faces significant financial challenges. It is still coping with the failure of the i6 supplier to deliver a national integrated IT system. For that reason, the ghosts of the old eight forces still exist under the covers. The ICT function continues to struggle. Lack of investment, or an established IT strategy, has meant little of strategic scale has been delivered so far.

The new force has brought benefits. Not least in substantial savings to the public purse. The pooling of resources such as the force helicopter, specialist officers, mutual aid and major incident teams, means that there is no longer a post code lottery to the standards you can expect from a modern police service. The fundamental rationale behind the creation of a single national force still stands. A more efficient and effective model of policing for all. No one should consider going back to the former eight force model. That is history now.

However. There needs to be a move towards a more democratic model of governance. No amount of changing personalities will cover over the systemic nature of the problem. The SPA and the current governance arrangements represent the San Andreas fault of Scottish Policing. Unstable and liable to destructive impulses.

What that new model should look like in practice, can only come from meaningful consultation. It is to be welcomed that the Scottish Government intends to initiate a strategic review and clearly they are keen to find a way to move on from the current situation. That should be applauded, though I’m not sure a strategic review is the right vehicle.

The Scottish Government needs to avoid assuming a defensive posture. There is a need to be on the front foot and take the lead. Police Scotland is too big and too vital a service to be used as a political football. Yes, the opposition parties will make hay. Change will be portrayed as an admission of failure, even though it is not. In reality the wider Scottish public will see a confident government making mature decisions and seeking improvements which will benefit us all. It should quite rightly be positioned as moving the new force onwards. Taking the next step. Measured and logical.

Ultimately, policing will be healthier when it is seen to have democratic accountability and oversight. How that is executed requires further debate. That debate needs to start now. I see no problem with authorities putting forward their own chosen elected members. A body made up of elected members from across the whole of Scotland is what we should aim for. It would be a strength that they came from all political persuasions and that no one party dominated. There could be a phased transition. A number of elected members from local authorities could be blended in as a first stage.

Policing by consent is the founding principle of the Scottish police service. It is admired around the globe for that reason. Democracy, however messy, offers a degree of accountability. There is a real opportunity to blend the positives of the past with the benefits of the new. An opportunity to help Police Scotland take another positive step forward. After all that’s what evolution is all about.

© Brian Cook and The Absentminded Scribe Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Cook and The Absent Minded Scribe Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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