Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Police Scotland: Giving the public a voice – David Belfall

Police Scotland was set up as a single, national police force 5 years ago. The decision was highly controversial at the time and aspects of the force’s governance and accountability continue to be the subject of debate. In this note I want to offer some suggestions on how the relationship between the force and the public might be developed and improved.

Public trust and confidence
My starting point is that public trust and confidence in the police is not only desirable in itself, but also essential for effective policing. The police cannot be everywhere and they depend on members of the public in reporting offences, alerting them to potential problems and coming forward as witnesses. In return the public expect the police to respond quickly and effectively to incidents and to more general concerns about crime and disorder, to exercise their powers courteously, responsibly and with restraint, and to keep them safe. Two-way mechanisms are required to ensure that this critical relationship between police and public is developed and sustained.

What can we say about the current state of this relationship? The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey conducted in 2016-17 (Scottish Government, March 2018) reported that:

  • when victims reported crime to the police, 66% were very or quite satisfied with how the police handled the matter
  • the majority of respondents (58%) said the police were doing a good or excellent job
  • 37% of crime was reported

Can these figures be regarded as satisfactory? They imply that 34% of victims were not satisfied with police action, 42% of the general public did not think that the police were doing a good or excellent job and 63% of crime was not reported to the police.

Public confidence in the police depends on many factors including, in particular, contacts which individuals have with the police, and media reports of police successes and failings. More broadly it depends on public perception that the police are both responsive to the communities they serve and are accountable for their actions. In a democratic society such as ours this requires that the police carry out their professional responsibilities within a framework set by our elected representatives.

The Scottish Police Authority
Historically in Scotland, as in England and Wales, responsibility for the police has been divided between three parties – the government, the chief constable and the police authority. This “tripartite relationship” has developed and fluctuated over time and there has been a good deal of debate about the interfaces between the three. But, in broad terms, the government has been responsible for general policing policy and for half (now in Scotland all) of the funding, the chief constable for enforcing the law and the operational effectiveness of his or her force, and the police authority for appointing the chief constable and senior officers, paying the staff, maintaining premises and equipment, obtaining best value from expenditure, representing the public view on priorities, policies and approaches, agreeing the chief constable’s policing plans, and holding the force to account.

In setting up Police Scotland as a single force (a decision which I support) the Scottish Parliament also and separately took a crucial decision about the police authority. Prior to the establishment of the single force the police authorities for the 8 precursor forces had consisted of councillors drawn from the council area or areas for which the force was responsible. Instead of a police authority for Police Scotland consisting of elected representatives, the Scottish Government chose to set up an appointed police authority, all of whose members are appointed by Scottish Ministers.

The appointment of a quango of this kind was remarkable for 2 reasons. First the removal of elective input at this level was a notable departure from the (much vaunted) democratic ethos of the Scottish Parliament. Second an appointed police authority is unprecedented in Scottish policing history (and virtually unprecedented in British policing history too).

A consequence of this decision was that the opportunity for the public to have a voice on policing issues was reduced. It is true that the legislation also made provision for local scrutiny committees based on local authority areas and consisting of local councillors but they have limited powers and no formal route for having a say in the decisions of the Scottish Police Authority.

There are many other models for a Scottish Police Authority (SPA) which could have been (and could still) be adopted. Some possibilities are as follows:-

  1. Reflecting the fact that Police Scotland is a national force the Scottish Parliament could have taken onto itself the functions of the Police Authority. It could have elected a committee of MSPs to perform these functions.
  2. Arrangements could have been made for the direct election of a single Scottish Police Commissioner to be the Police Authority. There are now precedents for this south of the Border.
  3. Alternatively arrangements could have been made for the direct election of a number of Police Commissioners who would together act as the SPA. Elections for these Commissioners could take place alongside the Regional List elections for the Scottish Parliament.
  4. Arrangements could have been made for local authorities, individually or collectively, to nominate some or all of the members of the SPA.

However the Scottish Government chose not to pursue any of these options. Instead they reserved to themselves the decisions about appointments to the SPA, thus ruling out any direct input by the public, or by local authorities, or by the Parliament.

Does this matter? If the functions of the SPA are viewed as purely executive, managerial and supervisory – that the authority is no more than the Board of any other public or private concern – then arguably it does not. But the alternative view (up till now a key feature of the Scottish and British policing model) is that the police authority has a vital role which goes beyond the purely executive in that it represents the public, identifies public concerns and holds the force to account on behalf of the public. However distinguished appointed authority members may be, and whatever their career and business records, they cannot reasonably claim to represent the public if the public has no input into their appointment and no ability to remove them.

One further comment. Previous research by the Home Office (“Involving the Public: the Role of Police Authorities” published by the Home Office in 2003) outlined the results of fieldwork in England and Wales with members of the public on their knowledge and experience of police authorities. It reported that the vast majority of members of the public had not heard of police authorities. The few that had heard of them did not know what they were or what their role was. The name “police authority” did not signal an identity separate from the police. When participants learned more about the role of police authorities, they thought that they were necessary and useful, if they were effective. However, many people were skeptical as to whether they were effective, largely because of their low public profile.

Although this research was conducted south of the Border it seems highly likely that there would be similar results in Scotland. There are lessons here for the current Scottish Police Authority but there will always be limits on the ability of a quango to raise its public profile and demonstrate that it has the clout and standing to hold the police to account. By its nature police authority consisting of elected members will always be more powerful and more visible. Was this a factor in the decision of the Scottish Government not to set up such a body?

Local and Community Policing
The words “local” and “community” are among the most overused and misused in the political lexicon – to which the term “localism” is a recent and unattractive addition. In this note I use “local” in the sense of local authority or council. There are 32 local authorities in Scotland. They vary greatly in area, population and social composition. I use “community” in the sense of a group of people with a common interest. It is however immediately necessary to distinguish between non-geographical communities (to which I will return) and geographical communities. Where I refer to geographical communities I am thinking of the neighbourhoods represented by community councils, of which there are around 1400 in Scotland. These geographical communities also vary greatly – for example some are highly rural, others live in city centres, some are deprived, others affluent, some ethnically mixed, others not.

It has long been a central tenet of Scottish (and wider British) policing, in pursuit of the concept of “policing by consent”, that the police need to work co-operatively and collaboratively with local authorities and communities, understanding and respecting their diversity, explaining police policies and actions, and responding to local and community concerns.  It is crucial that this approach is retained rather than moving towards the more directive, authoritarian and militaristic approach of police forces elsewhere in the world. The creation of a single national police force and an appointed police authority raised the possibility that policing by consent could be undermined if the force became more distant from local authorities and communities.

This risk was recognised, to some extent, in Chapter 7 of the Police and Fire Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 (the 2012 Act) which deals with local policing. That Chapter makes provision for the designation of a police commander for each local authority area, places on him or her the responsibility of providing reports and information reasonably requested by a local authority and makes provision for local authority involvement in drawing up the police plan for the council area. It also gives power to the local authority to monitor and provide feedback on policing in the council area. In practice local authorities have tended to delegate their role in these matters to a committee of councillors – the Local Scrutiny Committee (LSC).

Research (Partners in Scrutiny: Local Police Scrutiny Arrangements in Scotland by Alistair Henry, Ali Malik and Andy Aitchison published by the University of Edinburgh) has provided some analysis of the work of these committees. The final report (March 2016) noted that:

“The years following the implementation of the new LSCs have seen a number of high profile issues emerging which have raised concerns about the efficacy of these arrangements. For example, the routine arming of police officers, the policing of saunas and the sex industry, closures of public counters, and the ending of police traffic wardens were understood in some circles… to evidence a lack of local consultation and deliberation on matters which have a direct effect on local policing services and the communities they serve…”

The research identified a number of issues relating to the understanding of roles, information flow, capacities and skills and the sharing of good practice but, more fundamentally, it drew attention to concerns about a number of “structural disconnects” between the LSC on the one hand and the SPA and/or Police Scotland HQ on the other, between the various command levels within Police Scotland, between the LSC and communities and between the LSC and Community Planning structures.  So far as the relationship between LSCs and the SPA and/or Police Scotland HQ is concerned, the “disconnect” was seen in terms of the lack of a process for escalating issues from local to national level and for taking local perspectives into account before force wide decisions were made.

In parallel with this research the then Chair of the SPA conducted a review of the governance of policing (Review of Governance in Policing by Andrew Flanagan, Chair of the Scottish Police Authority, published by the SPA in March 2016). He too acknowledged that:

“…the overriding perception has been that local communities are not being listened to and that local commanders do not have enough autonomy to make local decisions”

His response was to state that “Principal responsibility for community engagement and accountability rests with Police Scotland under the relevant legislation”. On that basis he concluded that SPA members should no longer attend LSCs (despite the fact that this had been widely welcomed by LSC members) and the SPA should confine its role to ensuring that Police Scotland has proper and effective arrangements in place for local engagement. Within that context he recommended that a formal escalation process should be put in place to allow LSCs “to record their disagreement with individual policing policy decisions”. This disagreement should be conveyed to more senior levels within Police Scotland, though the SPA should be “advised” of any matters which require escalation.

The then Chairman’s approach to LSCs distanced the SPA from their work and limited the SPA to a role of monitoring, and facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience. It should be noted that his proposal for an escalation process only gave the LSC the ability to record its disagreement with a policing policy decision and did not give it any right to be consulted in advance on national decisions which may have local repercussions. More broadly, it is true that the 2012 Act states that the police service of Scotland must carry out its defined purpose “by policing in a way which is accessible to, and engaged with, local communities”. However it is questionable whether this gives Police Scotland “principal responsibility” for community engagement and accountability. An alternative approach, if one accepts that the SPA has a role to play in relation to public trust and confidence, would be for the SPA to take a much more proactive, participative role in the work of the LSCs than Mr Flanagan’s report envisaged.

To some extent this is acknowledged in the “Review of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) Executive” undertaken by Nicola Marchant, the Deputy Chair of the SPA, and Malcolm Burr, the Chief Executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. A section of the report of that review, which was published in March 2018, addresses “Stakeholder Engagement”.  Although this makes no reference to public or community engagement, it does acknowledge that there is “a poor level of engagement with local authorities, and particularly elected members” as “key delivery partners” and proposes further work with COSLA “to establish coordinated working arrangements with Councils which are proportionate and effective, but also manageable for Board members”. Although hesitant and written in management speak, the review report does in fact represent a step forward for the SPA in addressing the need for a much more effective two-way  relationship with the Scottish public through their locally elected representatives. But there is a long way to go if this is to be achieved.

I would make two more points about local and community policing. First, local scrutiny committees have been established in line with Chapter 7 of the 2012 Act, which deals exclusively with the role of local authorities. There are indeed local policing issues which can rightly be raised at council level (or more widely) – for example policy on the closure of counters and the ending of police traffic wardens. But there are also issues which are particular to specific communities and need to be discussed at that more local level. The research on LSCs detected a “disconnect” between LSCs and community councils. In practice community police officers should develop a good relationship with community councils so that they are aware of police actions and can advise the police of emerging concerns. In many instances this is happening outwith the structures in the 2012 Act. This is to be welcomed, albeit that there have been complaints in some cases that the same officer rarely attends twice and is not always fully informed.

Second it should not be regarded as sufficient for the police to confine their dialogue about local and community policing to those who attend LSC and community council meetings. The police also need to engage those who do not attend such meetings but who have a point of view to express.  In that context young people rarely figure or feel comfortable in council or community council settings and yet they may have a distinctive and relevant view on the policing challenges and policing approaches in a particular area. The third sector has an important potential part to play in promoting such dialogue with the young and with others who do not participate in formal structures.

Non-local policing
Local and community policing is, and must continue to be, central to the activities of Police Scotland. Local beat teams, response units and associated community-based officers account for the larger proportion of police manpower but, in the 21st century, both the external environment and the demands of providing an efficient and effective professional service mean that this is not the only dimension of policing.

Externally the police need for dialogue is not confined to geographical communities. They also need to engage common interest communities including, for example, faith communities, the LGBT community, ethnic communities, refugee and asylum communities and those with mental health issues. They need to engage these communities not only locally but also nationally. It is regrettable that the 2012 Act does not extend the need for policing to be conducted in “a way which is accessible to, and engaged with, local communities” to communities which define themselves by faith, sexual orientation, ethnic background or other common interest rather than their location.

Internally, if the police are to deliver an effective and professional service not all the demands of policing can be left to local officers. Local beat teams and response units can handle most of the police prevention and enforcement activities. They can process many cases from start to finish including taking suspected offenders to court. But in some cases they need to hand over cases to the CID or more specialist teams dealing with, for example, child abuse, rape and fraud. These more specialist units are important and they need to be organized at a size-level which ensures that the personnel have the training, expertise and experience they need to operate effectively. This is one of the areas where the former policing structure, with some very small forces, was defective.

Beyond that there are other areas of policing which have to be handled at a national or near-national level such as counter terrorism and internet policing. And major events – be they football matches, festivals, disasters or major criminal investigations – require the re-deployment of local officers if they are to be handled effectively. Under the previous structure there was provision for “mutual aid” between forces to cover these major events but the creation of a single force makes the re-deployment of officers easier to achieve.

Moreover, modern policing requires scientific and IT services to support front line officers. These include forensic services and command and control systems for dealing with calls from members of the public and deploying police resources. The creation of a single national force offers considerable scope for improvements and savings in these services.

The point I wish to make is that local and community policing cannot be seen in isolation. The days of Dixon of Dock Green, and even of Hamish Macbeth, are long gone. Effective policing, including effective policing by local officers, today depends crucially on a range of support services provided at above local, or at national, level. Arrangements for the governance and accountability of Police Scotland therefore have to apply to these non-local as well as local elements.

A possible blueprint 
The conclusions that I draw from these reflections are, first, that while the decision to set up a single Scottish police force was the right one, the model chosen was over-centralised and did not make sufficient provision for local and community circumstances; and, second, that the structures and mindset of the Scottish Police Authority need to be adjusted in order to place public trust and confidence in the police at the heart of all the authority does. The elements of such an adjustment would be as follows:-

  1. The Scottish Police Authority should be replaced by a Scottish Police Commission. A clear majority of the Commission should be directly elected by the public.
  2. The Commission should take over all the functions of the SPA as set out in the 2012 Act, with the following addition: “to improve public trust and confidence in the police”.
  3. At each Holyrood election the 8 regions which elect List members should also elect a Police Commissioner.
  4. The Scottish Government should retain the right to appoint (no more than five) Commissioners.
  5. The Commissioners should choose a Chair and Vice Chair from their number, whose appointments should be subject to confirmation by the Scottish Parliament.
  6. The elected and appointed Commissioners should all play a full and equal part in the Commission’s work, but the elected Commissioners should pay particular attention to local and community policing in the regions which elected them and the appointed Commissioners should focus on police activities and services which operate at above local level. One of the appointed Commissioners should be designated as responsible for developing dialogue with non-geographical communities and ensuring that their views are heard by the Commission as a whole.
  7. Each elected Commissioner should chair a committee to oversee local and community policing in his or her region, consisting of local councillors nominated by the council or councils in the region. The relevant Assistant Chief Constable should be expected to attend and one or more representatives of the third sector should be invited. The committee should assume the powers and responsibilities set out in Chapter 7 of the 2012 Act but in addition should have the right to be consulted in advance on changes in national policing policies which may have local repercussions. Minutes of each regional committee meeting should be tabled at the next meeting of the Scottish Police Commission so that issues raised can be pursued as necessary.
  8. The 2012 Act should be amended to require Police Scotland to police in a way which is “accessible to and engaged with” local authorities, community councils, non-geographical communities, and such other organisations and groupings as it considers may have a contribution to make to the better direction of its work. The Scottish Police Commission should be given statutory responsibility to satisfy itself that policing is being conducted in line with this requirement, and power to issue a direction to Police Scotland where it is not so satisfied.

David Belfall worked for 10 years in the Home Office Police Department and was Head of the Scottish Office Police and Emergency Services Group from 1988 until 1991. Although long since retired he retains a keen interest in policing issues.