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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 01 May 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Early Learning and Childcare, Commonwealth Games, Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Rape Crisis Centres and Prosecutions


Topical Question Time

Police Scotland (“A Force in Crisis”)

1. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the BBC programme “A Force in Crisis” alleging that, in 2014, the chief constable’s office suggested edits to a critical report on culture and ethos at Police Scotland. (S5T-01064)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

Yesterday evening’s BBC documentary explored a number of issues relating to the leadership and delivery of policing in the initial period following the establishment of Police Scotland. The matters that it raised, many of which are historical legacy force issues that were inherited by the single service, are primarily for Police Scotland to address. I welcome the steps that the Scottish Police Authority has taken to seek urgent assurances from the service in relation to the issues that the BBC programme raised and note its commitment to addressing those matters through the appropriate governance and assurance routes.

The Scottish Police Authority board is due to meet next on Wednesday, when it will discuss on-going efforts to transform policing in Scotland. That transformation is delivering an increasingly outcome-focused model of policing, improved emphasis on office and staff wellbeing and a continued focus on professional standards and ethics, all of which attracted comment in yesterday’s programme. The changes that are being taken forward will allow the service to build on the significant progress that has been made in recent times, whether that be in relation to the more ethical use of stop and search as a police tactic, the strengthening of Police Scotland’s anti-corruption practices or the delivery of targeted activities to support wellbeing across the service.

It is clear that the issues that were previously encountered in each of those areas predates Police Scotland, and I am confident that the establishment of a single command structure, coupled with the enhanced oversight arrangements that have been delivered through police reform, has aided the improvements that we have seen. I welcome the continued focus that Police Scotland has placed on ethics and professional standards throughout that process. That was recently demonstrated through the establishment of a new executive portfolio of professionalism and assurance, which is headed by an assistant chief constable.

I am committed to supporting both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority as they continue that important work, ensuring that public confidence in policing remains strong going forward.

Liam Kerr

I think that people watching this today will feel that the cabinet secretary’s answers are not really good enough. This is a scandal, and I do not use that word lightly. It appears that the head of our national police force engaged in a deliberate cover-up of allegations of corruption and changed the tenses describing other problems to suggest that they were already fixed. People and their trust in their employer make our police force what it is, but it is alleged that an entire section of the report entitled “Culture of Fear” was retitled, redacted and rescripted. The issue goes to the very top, but people will want to know how far. When did the cabinet secretary first learn about the problems identified and the whitewash? If the answer is, “In the last 48 hours,” does that not rather suggest that he is not on top of his brief?

Michael Matheson

The member will be aware that the report in question is almost four years old. It was an internal Police Scotland report that was considered internally in the police service. The member is referring to the actions not of the previous chief constable but of the chief constable before him—Sir Stephen House—when he talks about the changes that were made to that report.

With a report of this nature, I would expect there to be appropriate oversight by the Scottish Police Authority of how Police Scotland was taking forward such matters. However, it is worth picking up on some of the issues that this report highlighted. I believe that the member is referring to the part of the report about corruption in Tayside Police, which was the force that existed in Tayside before Police Scotland was created. I understand that that was investigated by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service at that point.

The member referred to the way in which the counter-corruption unit had been operating, but he is clearly not aware of the fact that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland undertook an assurance review of the counter-corruption unit in Police Scotland and published its report back in 2016. HMICS made 39 recommendations, all of which were accepted by Police Scotland. As a result, Police Scotland changed its model of dealing with anti-corruption issues. I am surprised that, as a justice spokesperson, the member is not aware that HMICS is about to produce an update review of the progress that Police Scotland has made on those issues.

Another aspect that the report highlighted was a culture of fear, particularly around targets for a range of issues including stop and search. We set up the independent oversight group—the advisory group—to look at stop and search. The group was headed by John Scott QC and it set out a range of recommendations. As a consequence, we now have the new code of practice for stop and search, which was approved by the Justice Committee as a significant step to change the culture around the use of stop and search, and as a result we no longer have the target culture that the report referred to.

The member seems not to recognise that significant progress has been made and continues to be made in a range of areas. I am assured that the Scottish Police Authority has given Police Scotland a clear indication that it wants an urgent update on the actions that have been taken to address the matters that were highlighted in the report, and it will then take that through its appropriate assurance mechanism. The member will recognise that the Scottish Police Authority is the body that is responsible for oversight of the police service, and that is exactly what it intends to do on this particular issue.

Liam Kerr

The cabinet secretary seems very clear on what he thinks I am aware of, but I am not sure that we got an answer to the question of what he was aware of in relation to these issues, or when. Perhaps someone else will pick up on that.

An early draft of the report claimed that, throughout, Police Scotland conducted itself using unauthorised surveillance and that it threatened and intimidated witnesses, unlawfully detained suspects, colluded on witness statements and failed to reveal evidence. There was also a culture of fear. Is the cabinet secretary aware of whether any or all of those allegations are true? In any event, will he order a full and forensic investigation into the report and its original findings and ensure that those who created the situation—and indeed those who may have tried to hide it—are fully held to account?

Michael Matheson

I just mentioned how the matter is going to be taken forward. It will be taken forward by the oversight body for policing in Scotland, which is the Scottish Police Authority. It has asked for urgent assurance from Police Scotland on the issues that were highlighted in the report.

The member will be aware that it was an internal Police Scotland report. Officials have no record of it having been shared with the Scottish Government—with me or previously. On that basis, it was an internal report that was taken forward by Police Scotland. Given the outcomes, I think that it should have shared the report with the Scottish Police Authority.

The important thing here is for the service to move forward. As I mentioned, in relation to a number of the areas that were highlighted in the report, significant progress has been made. I hope that, going forward, the Scottish Police Authority will make sure that the issues that were highlighted in the report have been appropriately addressed by the Scottish police service in such a way that people can have confidence in the way in which it manages these matters.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Four more members wish to ask supplementary questions. I ask for them to be kept relatively brief, and the answers similarly.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I begin by expressing my disappointment that we are not having a full statement on the matter, because it is extremely serious. The cabinet secretary went to some lengths to explain how it has concluded, but he did not make any comment on the suppression of key allegations in the report. The actions were taken in the very early days of Police Scotland. What does it say about the organisation’s culture and ethos that they were some of the very first acts of the then chief constable? Is the cabinet secretary confident that no such manipulation of reports or suppression of evidence of wrongdoing has taken place since then? Finally, let us return to the original question. When did he first become aware of the matter? Was it before last night? If so, why did he not bring the matter before Parliament?

Michael Matheson

The nature of the report was brought to my attention when the BBC published information relating to its programme and the fact that it was focusing on this particular report. As I mentioned, the report has not been shared with the Scottish Government. We do not have a record of ever having received it, and it predates my being in office.

Given the content of the report, I think that Police Scotland should have shared it with the Scottish Police Authority at the time to give it an opportunity to look at the issues. I think that it was a mistake on the part of Police Scotland not to do that.

I expect that, going forward, the Scottish Police Authority will be clear with Police Scotland that any internal reports of this nature, where issues of concern are highlighted, should be brought to the attention of the Scottish Police Authority, which is the appropriate body that has oversight of these matters. That is what I would expect to happen in the future should any report of this nature be brought forward by Police Scotland.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the progress that Police Scotland has made since its creation is reflected in high public confidence in the police and the lowest crime rate in 43 years?

Michael Matheson

Police Scotland has made significant progress. As I mentioned in my response to Liam Kerr’s question, many of the issues that are highlighted in the report, including the actions of the counter-corruption unit and issues relating to the use of targets, particularly stop-and-search targets, have been addressed. On staff not feeling that their wellbeing has been addressed, for example, a significant amount of work has been done in the service to address welfare and wellbeing issues. Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone has been key and instrumental in taking forward that work in the force to ensure that such matters are appropriately and more effectively addressed. He has put in place a whole range of measures to address them.

In relation to the legacy forces, my understanding is that, where there were questions about illegal action, matters were referred to the Crown Office for it to consider.

I am sure that members will recognise that the nature and findings of the report and its title—“A Force in Crisis”—do not reflect where Police Scotland is today, and they certainly do not reflect the dedication and hard work of thousands of police officers and staff who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe. That title does a disservice to those who work hard day in, day out to keep our communities safe, and I thank them for doing so.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I share the cabinet secretary’s view that that title is a fiction.

We need to take reassurance from the fact that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service intervened in respect of serious criminal accusations relating to Tayside Police. I take some reassurance from the Scottish Police Authority continuing to have an interest in that. However, colleagues seem to have a marked unwillingness to move on on issues. A lot of what we are talking about is a rehash of things that the Justice Committee or the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing have looked at. If Mr Kerr cares to look into it, he will see that that is the case.

During the life of Police Scotland, there has not been one unsolved murder, and organised crime has been tackled. There was recently a significant conviction of very vicious people who worked on an international basis. [Interruption.] My Labour colleagues do not seem to want to listen to this. Victims of sexual crime have growing confidence in the police service. I have confidence in the police, and we will continue our scrutiny. Does the cabinet secretary have confidence in Police Scotland?

Michael Matheson

John Finnie has made a number of important points. I recognise that members did not want to listen to him, because it was good news. As ever, the Opposition parties are not here to support the police service; they are here to kick it when they can, and they take that opportunity whenever they can. That reflects the standard that we have come to expect from Opposition justice spokespeople these days.

John Finnie is correct: there have been no unsolved murders since Police Scotland was created, and significant progress has been made in tackling serious and organised crime issues. The recent conviction of nine individuals at the High Court of Justiciary in Glasgow is a clear example of the significant progress that we have been able to make, particularly with a single command structure, in giving a clear focus to tackling serious and organised crime groups that are significant not only in Scotland but internationally in the organised crime sector. That in itself is a demonstration of the real benefits that have come from the way in which the service is addressing issues.

I have absolutely no doubt that the service will continue to make improvements. There are areas in which there continue to be challenges and areas in which the service will want to continue to make improvements and address issues of concern, but I have absolutely no doubt that it is moving in the right direction. It is doing so because of the dedication and commitment of thousands of men and women—officers and staff—who do everything in their power each day to ensure that they keep our communities safe. I have every confidence in them.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I take exception to accusations that Opposition members are doing the police down. With the exception of the previous two questions, we have held the Government to account.

Until yesterday, it was clear that Police Scotland was still keeping the review secret; indeed, the police rejected a freedom of information request on the matter five weeks ago. Is it not the case that the real reason why the Scottish ministers have shown no interest in obtaining the original report is that it calls into question the effectiveness of their centralisation of power in the police and, indeed, their toothless police authority?

Michael Matheson

No, I do not agree with that. To a large extent, the report highlights issues relating to conduct in previous legacy forces. I am sure that the member, if he gave proper consideration to the matter, would have serious doubts about the quality of the oversight of what was going on in the legacy forces and their ability to address some of the issues, which Police Scotland has inherited and is having to deal with.

I assure the member that, as I set out my original answer, the Scottish Police Authority is clear that it wants urgent assurances from Police Scotland on the issues that were raised in the report and that they have been or are being addressed in the service.

I made reference to a number of the areas where progress has been made, including stop and search. The member’s colleague, the former MSP Alison McInnes, was at the forefront of demanding that we change our approach to stop and search. She made a positive contribution to the policing debate by trying to change policing and to improve how it operated in our society, and her legacy is reflected in the changes that were made.

The report highlights the culture of targets and the culture of fear that that created. Part of that was driven by the targets on stop and search. That approach has now changed significantly.

I assure the member that progress has been made on a number of different areas, and it was for the producers to decide whether to reflect that in their programme. I have mentioned several of those areas, which were referenced in the report. I have no doubt that the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland will want to continue to drive forward the improvements in the months and years ahead.

Alcohol Pricing

2. Ash Denham (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what process it will use to monitor the effectiveness of the pricing per unit of alcohol. (S5T-01059)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

Today is a truly landmark day, as Scotland becomes the first country worldwide to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol. NHS Health Scotland is leading the monitoring and evaluation plan for minimum unit pricing. The plan involves an extensive portfolio of research that will examine a number of areas, including implementation and compliance, price and product range, alcohol sales and consumption, alcohol-related harm, economic impact on the industry and attitudes to minimum unit pricing. Some studies will be carried out by NHS Health Scotland and others will be commissioned.

An overarching governance board and evaluation advisory group for the individual studies have been established. For some surveys, baseline data collection has been completed. I look forward to seeing the data from the evaluation programme as we embark on the next phase of our journey to tackle Scotland’s relationship with alcohol.

Ash Denham

Minimum unit pricing is intended to be part of a wider health policy. Will the cabinet secretary set out the number of lives that it is hoped will be saved as a result of its implementation?

Shona Robison

The University of Sheffield modelling estimates that, if a minimum unit price of 50p was introduced in the first year, there would be 58 fewer alcohol-related deaths and almost 1,300 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions. Over five years, we could expect 392 fewer alcohol-related deaths and almost 8,254 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions.

For some illnesses associated with drinking alcohol, it may take longer to see the full benefit of drinking less. We think that it will probably take 20 years for all the benefits of the policy to be realised, but substantial progress will be made over that period.

Ash Denham

Are other countries looking at and considering implementing the model that Scotland has introduced?

Shona Robison

The member may be aware that the Welsh Assembly Government introduced legislation for minimum unit pricing of alcohol in October 2017, and that Ireland is also looking at the policy. I understand that the Australian Northern Territory is considering a minimum floor price for alcohol.

Minimum unit pricing is a landmark policy that is gaining interest across the world, and other countries are watching Scotland with interest. I know that other health professionals, including the chief medical officer in England, are supporters of the policy, and I hope that there will be growing voices for other parts of the United Kingdom to follow suit.

The Presiding Officer

I am conscious that we are well over time, but if members are brief, I will take two front-bench questions.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

In the assessment process, will consideration be given to a banded approach to minimum unit pricing, as highlighted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in its recent report? The suggestion was submitted to the Scottish Government’s consultation on price.

Shona Robison

It is important that we establish the evidence on the basis of the 50p price, but as the evaluation goes forward, we will of course keep price under review, as I said. Price is something that we will come back to, but what is important now is that we get on with implementing the policy.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

In monitoring the effectiveness of MUP, will the cabinet secretary commit to looking at two other areas? First, will she consider the downward trend in investment in alcohol and drug partnerships and the impact of that on our alcohol strategy? Secondly, will she consider where the money goes and consider introducing a social responsibility levy, so that the additional resource that comes from MUP does not go towards supermarket profits but can instead be invested in our national health service and support services?

Shona Robison

It is good that Labour is finally supporting this important policy.

Anas Sarwar will be aware—because I have said this already—that the evaluation process will capture where revenues land, because they could land in a number of different places. That will be monitored.

I have explained why this is not the right time to introduce a public health supplement or a social responsibility levy—of course, the policy was aimed at addressing local circumstances rather than being to do with minimum unit pricing. However, we will keep the matter under review.

I would have thought that Anas Sarwar would be aware that there was £20 million of additional spend for alcohol and drug partnerships in the budget—which, unfortunately, he voted against.