John’s Speech on Police Accountability

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I thank Hugh Henry for securing the debate. It is not my intention to speak at great length about Renfrewshire, but I understand that the people of Renfrewshire would welcome discussion. No harm has ever come from discussion, whether by the people of Renfrewshire or by those of the Highlands and Islands, whom I am charged with representing and who are interested in this issue. I repeat that I am grateful to the member for securing the debate.

The motion refers to “reported controversies”. I played a part in the matter of armed policing. That issue was legitimately raised by me, because of public concerns. Those concerns could have been addressed had there been consultation—indeed, had there been a community impact assessment.

That gets to the heart of the issue. Words such as “community” and “engagement” are what policing should be about. Policing is something that is done for the people, not to the people. I genuinely hope that lessons will be learned. We could have a lengthy discussion about policing by consent or operational independence, and I think that we could learn something.

The motion mentions accountability. I would take exception with Hugh Henry in that I do not recall any suggested alternative structure, although I may stand corrected on that by Labour members. I for one welcome the fact that there are council ward policing plans, which are very useful.

I also like the fact that each local authority has its own committee; the four local authorities in the Highlands and Islands were previously represented by one board. However, as Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary said last week, the committees need to assert themselves. The Parliament can play a role by encouraging that and by empowering those committees.

We have heard from a number of people, including Mr Henry, about the Scottish Police Authority. The SPA has indeed been absent on the big issues—it has just not been there. The authority has been playing catch-up and it has not made a particularly good job of that.

The report on armed policing has come late, and I understand that it was the subject of dynamic editing, or something of that nature. It would be good to understand the background to that. We need a spirit of openness and transparency from Police Scotland and the SPA.

They were keen to quote the survey results, but I understand that they have not made those results available to the press. Indeed, they have told the press that they do not have those results. The press have gone to the company that produced the information, which has been told that it is not to disclose the information to the press. I understand that that might breach the code of conduct for companies. Hopefully, the matter will pan out in the right way and the fullest information will be disclosed. I pose the question: who is accountable to whom?

I turn to budget pressures. The VAT issue is not a minor one. However, I think of the energy that went into the swift delivery of VAT-free status for the academy schools that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put in place, and indeed for ski lifts, which are important in my area, and I suggest that if there had been a will, there would have been a way to address that issue.

There is a reversal of the civilianisation programme, as it would have been called in the early 1970s. That is disappointing. I commend the work of Unison in that regard. The principle of a job requiring police powers, meaning that a constable has to do it, or not requiring police powers, is not just a black-and-white issue. There are issues around the margins, particularly in rural areas, where police officers are involved in firearms inquiries and in the delivery of citations, and there is some benefit there.

I served in the police for 30 years. Like Graeme Pearson, I am very proud of the police service and of my time there. Prior to the advent of Police Scotland, I sought, and was given, assurances that best practice in the constituent forces would be applied. That was not the case. I will not repeat all the difficulties around stop and search, but there is a very clear framework in which police officers work: the common law and statute law.

Unfortunately, the common theme here is the direction and style of the chief constable, where creative mechanisms have been put in place. I hope that that will be addressed.

I certainly wish to lend my clear support to the front-line officers, the police support staff and other officers who support them. The role of the Scottish Parliament is to be a friend to the Police Service of Scotland, but a critical friend. I hope that there has been some constructive criticism—I have certainly heard that today. Once again, I thank Hugh Henry for securing the debate.