Argyll police stations face closure threat

John Finnie 2John Finnie has written to the Chief Constable after it emerged that dozens of police stations – including several in Argyll – are under threat of closure.

A Freedom of Information request by BBC Scotland has revealed that Police Scotland buildings in 58 locations are being reviewed, including Oban, Loghgilphead, Campbelltown, Inverary and Taynuilt.

John is the Justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP for the Highlands and Islands. He said:

“Of course all organisations should review processes.

“I don’t doubt some of these buildings will be less than ideal for modern needs, some of the locations on the list are very worrying whilst closure of any of the Argyll stations is unacceptable.

“With five stations in Argyll under threat suggests we could have next to no visible police presence on the West coast at all.

“While many people do use phone and the internet to interact with police, there is still a significant number of people – many elderly and vulnerable – who do not. Accessibility is paramount.

“In the past, Police Scotland have handled counter closures badly, so lessons must be learned.

“While there is much to be said for co-location of public services, such as Police and Fire or Police and Council sharing, we must prevent withdrawal from communities.

“Public confidence is vital. I look forward to the Chief Constable’s reply.”

John welcomes police commitment on dangerously slow driving

John Finnie three-quarterJohn Finnie has urged police to take seriously the issue of dangerously slow driving on roads like the A82, and says he welcomes Police Scotland’s positive response.

John wrote to Police Scotland leadership to raise the issue of slow driving, which is especially prevalent on scenic roads during the tourist season.

In reply, the Local Area Commander for road policing in the North, Chief Inspector Louis Blakelock, recognised the problem, saying:

“You correctly raise the point that inappropriate speed, like driving too slow, does as you suggest lead to frustration and irresponsible driver behaviour.

“Driving slowly, causing tailbacks and frustration is a behaviour that falls within the provisions of Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (Careless Driving) and this type of behaviour is one that is routinely addressed by Police Officers patrolling the A82 and other roads.

“I wish to reassure you that Police Officers tasked with patrolling the A82 will be made aware of your concerns and they will continue to challenge inappropriate speed in the circumstances you describe as part of their core duties on the A82 and other trunk roads”

John said:

“While excessive speed remains one of the biggest threats to safety on our roads, driving too slowly on trunk roads is also a significant problem.

“During tourist season especially, queues can readily form on our trunk roads behind vehicles travelling 30mph whose occupants are effectively sight-seeing.

“This of course causes great frustration and can lead to increased danger from behaviours such as irresponsible overtaking.

“I’m pleased with Ch Insp Blakelock’s positive response to the issue, and I hope the increase in dedicated Road Policing Officers will help keep vital roads like the A82 flowing smoothly and safely.”

John seeks assurances on armed police

 

Yesterday (Thursday 17th June) the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson announced that the number of armed police officers in Scotland was set to rise following intelligence about the on-going threat level in the country. You can read the Cabinet Secretary’s, including John’s question here: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10472&i=96491&c=1926523#ScotParlOR

Commenting afterwards John said:

“The Justice Secretary must accept that there will be serious public concern about today’s announcement. Although there is information informing the threat level, we must question the quality of the intelligence received and whether it has been obtained legitimately, especially in light of recent revelations about the Scottish Recording Centre.

“I previously challenged Police Scotland over the deployment of armed officers on routine activities. The public will rightly be wondering if the increase in numbers of armed officers will lead to mission creep. I welcome today’s assurance that the deployment policy implemented two years ago will be maintained, meaning that armed police should only be used in firearms incidents or where there is a threat to life.

“If the threat level reduces we must see a reduction in use of armed officers. In putting that point to the Justice Secretary he conceded that a reduction in threat level would allow the level of deployment to be revisited, and I would hope we reach that point in the near future.”

 

Scottish Recording Centre surveillance breaches human rights

John Finnie - Amnesty InternationalJohn Finnie has questioned the Cabinet Secretary for Justice about the latest revelations of the use of mass surveillance by Scottish police.

Documents released by US whistleblower Edward Snowden show that a policing body called the Scottish Recording Centre was given access to swathes of communications data including phone activity, internet histories and social media behaviour.

John is the Scottish Greens spokesperson on Justice, and a former police officer himself.

He said:

“This sort of blanket surveillance is out of proportion, inefficient and incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Cabinet Secretary today attempted to give the impression that all policing activities in Scotland are proportional and that interceptions are independently approved but as we know that is not always the case.

“There is clearly a culture of bulk collection of data that needs reined in. I will continue to challenge such over-reaching activities.”

You can read John’s exchange with the Justice Minister in the Scottish Parliament Official Report, or watch it on YouTube.

John appointed to two Holyrood committees

Large committee room in the Scottish Parliament
Photo: Adam Elder / Scottish Parliament
John Finnie has been appointed to the Scottish Parliament’s committees on Justice and on Rural Economy and Connectivity.

John has served on the Justice Committee since 2011, drawing on his experience as a former Northern Constabulary police officer. Most notably, he used Justice Committee hearings to hold Police Scotland to account over officers carrying firearms while on routine duties – a campaign for which he received the title of Community MSP of the Year at the 2014 Herald Scottish Politician of the Year Awards.

His appointment to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee – which is also responsible for transport, agriculture and the Islands – reflects John’s new role as the Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on Transport, Tourism and Rural & Island Communities, as well as remaining the party’s spokesperson on Justice.

John said:

“I’m delighted to be appointed for a second term on the Justice Committee, where my priorities will include restoring the community ethos to Scottish policing, and defending our hard-won human rights.

“Joining the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee is an exciting opportunity to push for the investment the Highlands and Islands needs to make the most of our huge potential in sustainable industries like food, forestry and clean energy.”

The Committees are a vital part of the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood only has one chamber – it has no equivalent of the House of Lords – so the Committees are responsible for making sure proposed new laws, and the work of the government, are scrutinised in detail. Committees can also conduct inquiries into issues within their policy area, calling witnesses including government ministers and officials, outside experts, and people who are directly affected.

The six Green MSPs were appointed to a total of 11 Committee places. The other Green assignments are:

  • Ross Greer (West Scotland) — European and External Relations Committee; Education and Skills Committee
  • Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) — Finance Committee; Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee
  • Alison Johnstone (Lothian) — Health and Sport Committee; Social Security Committee
  • Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) — Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
  • Andy Wightman (Lothian) — Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee; Local Government and Communities Committee

You can see the full line-up for all of the new committees in the Scottish Parliament Official Report.

John’s call to save Inverness police control room

John Finnie has called for the scrapping of the planned merger of police control rooms in Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee, following the publication of the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) report into the failings of call handling that were exposed by the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill on the M9.

In response to a statement in Parliament by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson MSP, John also sought a guarantee that the call handlers’ union UNISON would be fully involved in any decision on the control rooms.

John said:

“This comprehensive report clearly lays out past and present challenges around the handling of calls. We welcome the recognition of the need for improvements and an assurance that ‘staffing levels… are now stabilised’. However, Police Scotland must go further and ensure there is adequate resilience in their system of call-handling.

“It was the Scottish Greens’ view that HMICS’ Interim Report evidenced the compelling need to retain the Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness centres and this final report simply reinforces that view. The Cabinet Secretary stated ‘independent experts will be brought in to provide strong assurances before any decision is considered’ to those three centres. I advised the Cabinet Secretary this sounded like a decision made.

“I sought an assurance from the Cabinet Secretary that UNISON, who represent the majority of control room staff, would be at the forefront of meaningful consultation with nothing pre-determined. Whilst the Cabinet Secretary said he welcomed the role UNISON could play, it was well short of the unequivocal ‘yes’ I had hoped for.”

John is the Scottish Green Party’s justice spokesperson and a former Northern Constabulary officer. He serves on the Scottish Parliament’s Justice and Policing committees.

John’s question to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and the minister’s reply, are below. You can see this exchange within the transcript of the full statement and questions in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I thank Mr Penman for his report and the cabinet secretary for early sight of it.

I want to pick up on Mr Macdonald’s point because my attention was also drawn to the fact that

“independent experts will be brought in to provide strong assurances”.

Language is very important and to me, as well as to many others, that reads as though decisions have been made and experts will be brought in to confirm a predetermined decision.

I read the report as being further evidence for the interim report, which suggested to me that there is a compelling need to retain Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee call centres. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that Unison is at the forefront of meaningful consultations about this, and that nothing is predetermined?

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson):

As the member will be aware, the report does not recommend that the final model should not be pursued or that that model cannot deliver the type of service that Police Scotland intends to achieve. The intended model, which is the end point that Police Scotland wants to get to with its call centre arrangements, is still its direction of travel.

The independent expertise will put in place additional safeguards before any further steps can be taken in moving to the closure of any other control rooms at present. There will be an independent process of scrutiny to provide assurance that all the necessary steps have been taken before that change can take place.

The member asked about Unison. I welcome the statement that Unison issued today, which welcomed the report. I am disappointed that others have not welcomed the report. Unison welcomed the report and the progress that has been made in improving the situation in the call centres. I have made it clear that I expect good engagement to take place with all stakeholders as the process moves forward, including important stakeholders such as Unison, which represents many of the staff in the Police Scotland control rooms.

I assure the member that Police Scotland has been left in no doubt about the need to ensure that there is good, effective engagement with the staff side in addressing those issues.

John Comments on Increased Food Thefts in Highlands

Commenting on the statement by Ch. Supt Julian Innes that the police believed the rise in shoplifting in the Highlands and Islands was as a result of people struggling to feed themselves.

John said:

“The police service works in our communities. They understand our communities.

“When we have a senior figure like Chief Superintendent Julian Innes, who is well respected, laying out very, very clearly that people are stealing foodstuffs to sustain their living, then that’s a shocking state of affairs. I do not believe that Ch. Supt Innes would have said what he did without serious evidence to the case.

“Of course there have always been thefts, and no-one is condoning theft for one second, but in the past it has been thefts of luxury items. These thefts are obviously not luxuries , they are for the basics.

“These are obviously people who are hard pressed, people who are in dire straits.  We have heard of cases from across the UK of those who have had benefits sanctioned needing to resort to theft in order to eat. That it may now be happening in the Highlands and Islands is utterly depressing. The UK Government cannot continue to turn a blind eye to stories of such desperation. I am writing to the UK Government urging them to tackle such desperation.”

John’s comment on Stephen House’s Resignation

Commenting on Sir Stephen House’s decision to step down early as chief constable of Police Scotland, John Finnie said:

“It was clear from start of Police Scotland that Sir Stephen House had the necessary drive and authority to transform the various elements of policing across Scotland into a single public service. Sadly, despite assurances that best practice from all the former constituent forces would be adopted, it very swiftly became the case that it was the House way or no way in Police Scotland.

“Rather than responding to wise counsel, both within and outwith the police service, Sir Stephen placed armed officers in our communities and inflicted industrial levels of stop and search across the country. It is inappropriate to pre-empt outcome of the ongoing inquiry into tragic loss of life following the M9 road incident, however, it has long been apparent that the Chief Constable does not enjoy the public support that his post demands and regrettably this has fed down to negative perceptions of police officers and support staff who are doing a great deal of good work across our communities.

“His early departure is one call that Sir Stephen has got right.”

John is Justice Spokesperson for the Scottish Greens.

Policing the polis: Holding Scotland’s new service to account

This article was written in March 2015, and first appeared in the most recent edition, issue 41, of Democratic Left Scotland’s magazine, Perspectives. Copies are now available at Word Power, West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. 

John Finnie - Amnesty InternationalEver since being asked to write an article, a couple of months ago, on Scotland’s now two year old police service, its already rancorous birth has been compounded by almost weekly controversies.

Since the new service started there has been a wholesale change in policing methods: armed officers have appeared on our streets attending routine non firearms incidents; and a significant number of Scotland’s children have been stopped by the police, asked to ‘consent’ to being searched, then having their mobile phone numbers requested.

I’m a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Police Committee and during evidence taking have been assured by senior officers that those unpopular, and in one instance legally questionable, practices had stopped only to subsequently learn that’s not the case. Whilst this information was not given on oath, as senior public servants it was reasonable to assume that we would not subjected to false, misleading or inaccurate statements.

So what is going on? Who is really in charge? And was the First Minister wise to recently give the chief constable a vote of confidence when many think she should be giving him his P45?

I will examine the background to Scotland’s police service, what checks and balances exist, whether the advent of the single police service heralded the police being the controversial political issue they have become, whether those controversies have another genesis, and what the future might hold.

The difficult birth of Police Scotland

Until fairly recent times it was widely accepted that the principal of policing by consent applied to the various constabularies discharging their duties in Scotland.

In April 2013, Scotland’s eight regional forces and ‘central services’, such as the Scottish Police College, were merged into a single entity, Police Scotland, since which time the police’s commitment to that concept has been seriously questioned by local and national politicians and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

I fought for and secured improving amendments to the legislation and, as Chair of the Parliament’s Cross party Group on Human Rights, was delighted my proposed revised oath to be sworn by all new recruits; “I, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, and that I will uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law,” was unanimously agreed by Parliament. The previous oath made no mention of “upholding human rights”.

The transition from 9 bodies to one was tortuously slow. Police are very rank- conscious and the preparatory work for the new service had exactly the same number of ‘work-streams’ as there were assistant chief constables so everyone got a new, albeit temporary, title. Self-interest among those individuals lead to inertia and it was only after the appointment of Police Scotland’s first chief constable, Stephen House, hitherto the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, that things got moving.

Stephen House is a former Metropolitan Police Officer who believes that a ‘performance culture’ is what is required to evidence sound policing practice. So, whilst some things, such as public reassurance, are very hard to quantify, it is easy to count the number of drivers charged with not wearing a seat belt or the number who have dropped litter. Now, as someone who owes their life to wearing a seat belt, I place very great store in educating the public about road traffic safety and, of course, I dislike litter. However, in each of those instances, if the offender is someone who will respond to advice, then much better that, rather than reach for their notebook, officers deploy their most significant power: the power of discretion. That way you have two citizens grateful for not being charged and two future potential witnesses to help the police. But if you give a clear focus on numbers then that’s what front-line officers will concentrate on.

The period running up to the amalgamation was frenzied. On paper at least, the scrutiny process was designed to be enhanced. Each council ward now has its own Policing Plan and each Local Authority its own Police Committee, rather than the joint board system of members for various authorities in all but two of the former forces. Overseeing it all, the Scottish Police Authority, a board of appointees with various backgrounds and officials with a variety of skills.

Arming the police

Until about 20 years ago, the Scottish Police service was always unarmed. Trained officers could be sent to incidents where firearms were needed, invariably the aftermath of an armed robbery, a murder using firearms or whilst on close protection duties for VIPs. About 20 years ago saw the advent of the Armed Response Vehicle: two highly trained uniformed officers in a vehicle on constant patrol. Within the last decade each of the forces had them but only Strathclyde and Lothian & Borders officers have the firearms carried overtly on the officers; Tayside’s ARV crews carried the weapons covertly whilst the other forces had weapons contained within a locked safe in the boot of the vehicle with withdrawal and use requiring the approval of a senior officer.

When a constituent contacted me saying they were concerned armed officers were patrolling on foot in the Inverness area I was initially sceptical but I made some enquiries and found it to be correct.

One of the changes that followed the move to the single service was the significant change I encountered trying to get replies to constituents’ enquiries. I wrote to the chief constable asking if there was a plan to put in place a correspondence protocol and was effectively told ‘we’ll decide what’s important’. For those reasons, rather than send off another letter which could go unanswered for months, I raised the matter through the Herald newspaper.

Police Scotland’s response was dismissive. I was told that only I and one other had ever complained. I sought and secured a meeting with the Assistant Chief Constable responsible for firearms and invited all my Highlands and Islands MSP colleagues to attend.

Now, almost a year and three official reports on we are told the ‘terrorist threat’ means our armed officers will retain their ‘standing authority’ to openly carry their firearms and they will still intervene in non-firearms incidents ‘using their professional judgement’. My request that the guns be returned to the safe in the car boot has been roundly rejected.

Stop and search

When used proportionately, stopping and searching citizens is legitimate crime prevention tool for the police. Indeed, common law powers of search and statutory powers relating to things such as drugs and weapons have always been a feature of effective policing. The laws relating to stop in search did not alter when Police Scotland came into being, nor did the threat level suddenly change what did alter was the police’s approach to stop and search.

One year in, we learned that levels of stop and search in Scotland exceeded those of the Metropolitan Police and New York Police Department.

More reports and explanations, and then the sad spectacle of Assistant Chief Constable Mawson, in the full light of the resulting publicity, explaining to Parliament that the ‘loss’ of “20,086 (search) records …. between May and July last year’ was because, ‘a computer programmer pressed the wrong button”. I’m not sure even he believed it, but within a few days the story changed anyway.

Whether terrorism, organised crime or drugs, the police like to tell us their operations are far from random, rather they are “intelligence led”. Of course, were that the case then we wouldn’t see communities targeted for stop and search operations resulting in four out of five stopped and searched having nothing on them, something the hapless ACC described as ‘a good success story’.

Later, having assured Parliament that searching of under-12s would cease, only for it to continue, the chief constable boasted he can and does ask for explanations from officers, bizarrely adding “that is quite an impressive development as far as human rights are concerned.” The ‘development’ that has seen young people stopped, searched, and had inappropriate details requested is ‘impressive’: an impressive disregard of human rights which will now stop.

Every profession has its own language and when we are told “there are no targets for volume of stop and search” yet are aware that each of Scotland’s Divisional Commanders has 23 key performance indicators to satisfy, you can see how scepticism can arise.

Policing the polis

Councillors on local authority committees have little to scrutinise and were cynically by-passed on the armed police issue whilst the Police Authority, initially distracted by a turf war about who’d be in charge of what, has been absent without trace on both the armed police and stop and search issues, belatedly and ineptly reporting events long since pored over by the press and politicians.

Since I became an independent MSP, the government no longer has a majority on either the Justice or Police Committees and seem to wish to characterise criticism of the police as ‘an opposition campaign’. I fear that misjudges the important scrutiny role expected of parliamentarians and, whilst we must all support the rule of law, that does not mean a blank cheque to an over-bearing policing style.

What do we learn from all of this? Well, it’s not that all the Police Scotland does is bad. The proactive work targeting serial domestic violence offenders has rightly been widely welcomed by Women’s Aid and others. Yet, even with that positive issue, rather than work with the legislative tools they are given, the police became active and vocal supporters of ending the age old Scots law convention of corroboration, the requirement for two separate sources of evidence to convict someone. That issue was eventually kicked into not very long grass by the Scottish Government, and will emerge again at the end of the year in time for proponents of this dangerous change to pontificate that some rights are more important than others.

Those opposed to the creation of the single service will feel vindicated that the series of events I have related show that they were right. I disagree; I believe they show a single-minded chief constable, unchallenged by his fellow chief officers, who isn’t held in check by his Police Authority, and who needs reigned in.

Sir Stephen House is quick to say he understands the need for him to be accountable; however, you do not need to be an expert in body language to read that’s not really his view.

I support local policing, and were I still a local councillor I would have been asking questions about armed officers on my beat. Why it was not picked up at local or national level? In fairness to the police they did tell the Police Authority. It was the last sentence of Paragraph ‘5.9’ of agenda item ‘8’: “Work is therefore well underway and on track in terms of Armed Policing provision for Day 1 when a standing authority for Armed Response Vehicles (ARV), Tactical Firearms Unit (TFU), airport coverage and other policing operations will be implemented.” Now, despite my intimate knowledge of the police service, I would not have read it as ‘routine arming’. Deliberate or not, it is now academic because, as with many other aspects of the controversies, the story has constantly changed with there being several versions of how it happened.

A colleague on the Police Committee recently asked the chief constable ‘if a witness in a police investigation changed their evidence as quickly and as often as that, they would be considered to be unreliable, would they not?’ Sir Stephen House replied ‘we would certainly be interested in why the story was changing. We are trying to explain why the story has changed.’

The story that is Police Scotland needs to change and, whilst that may only happen with the departure of the present chief constable, we must all remain vigilant and demand that our police service ‘uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law’. I’ve not given up hope yet!

John welcomes Transport Police as part of Police Scotland

John has welcomed the announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice that Police Scotland will undertake the control of Transport Policing once these functions have been devolved by the UK Government.

The proposal to devolve the functions and control of the British Transport Police within Scotland formed a part of the cross-party Smith Commission’s recommendations published on the 27th November 2014.

John had previously called for the devolution of the Transport Police to be examined by the Scottish Government ahead of its initial police reforms in 2012.  Whilst the then Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill indicated that he was sympathetic to such a move, it did not materialise.

BTP Letter Sept 2011

Commenting on the announcement John said:

“I am delighted that the Scottish Government has confirmed that the British Transport Police in Scotland will form part of Police Scotland once the powers are devolved.

“I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in September 2011 before the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill began its Parliamentary journey. In my letter I highlighted that British Transport Police Officers in Scotland trained alongside other Scottish Officers.

“In his reply Mr MasAskill indicated he ‘saw the sense’ in my proposal and would seek a conversation with the UK Government to discuss the issue. Whilst it may have taken longer than I would have liked, I am delighted that this responsibility will now rest with Police Scotland. “