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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 29 November 2017

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Policing, General Practice, Non-domestic Rates (Arm’s-length External Organisations), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Small Business Saturday 2017


Contents


Policing

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a statement by Michael Matheson on policing. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:43  

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

I am grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament on the leadership and performance of policing. When we created Police Scotland in 2013, we purposely strengthened the governance, accountability and scrutiny arrangements for policing and created a clear statutory framework for investigations of misconduct allegations against police officers. There is also a clear and independent process for investigating criminal allegations under the direction of the Lord Advocate.

We created the Scottish Police Authority and the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner to provide independent investigation and decision making on misconduct matters, and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland provides professional and independent scrutiny of policing, with a statutory duty to support policing to deliver best value and continuous improvement.

As members know, last Friday, an assistant chief constable was suspended by the Scottish Police Authority. The Scottish Police Authority board took that decision after the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner brought allegations to its attention. Those include criminal matters that the commissioner had been directed to investigate by the Crown Office. That criminal investigation has commenced and is on-going.

The SPA also referred misconduct allegations about the senior officer to the PIRC, and the commissioner is now establishing whether a misconduct investigation is required. In addition, three other officers were suspended and two were placed on restricted duties. Decisions on those officers were taken by Police Scotland in line with the relevant conduct regulations as passed by Parliament.

Those are live investigations and we must respect the process. Until the investigations are completed, further comment on or speculation about the individual cases would not be appropriate.

I am aware of some criticism of the current process. There has been widespread speculation about the individuals involved in cases and the nature of allegations before the process has concluded, and I have considerable sympathy with the view that that is unhelpful. Going forward, it will be important to reflect on the operation of the process, particularly around confidentiality and how the existing process can be improved and developed once the current cases are more advanced.

The events have caused understandable concern, and I wish to highlight the measures that are being put in place to strengthen the senior command team in Police Scotland. Following the recent suspensions, Deputy Chief Constable Designate Iain Livingstone acted quickly to review his command structure. In doing so, he stated his confidence in the leadership that is provided by Police Scotland’s officers and staff, reinforcing the point that leadership exists across all aspects of policing from his role as the deputy chief constable all the way through the organisation to the police constables who are serving their local communities. I whole-heartedly support that view. His recommendations to strengthen Police Scotland’s senior team were approved by the SPA board yesterday. As a result, two officers will be promoted to temporary assistant chief constable with immediate effect. Gillian MacDonald and Alan Speirs have passed the UK-wide strategic command course and are ready and fully qualified to step up. Steps have also been taken to ensure that the operation of Police Scotland’s counter-terrorism and firearms units are unaffected by recent developments. Operations and training continue as normal, with experienced officers filling key roles.

Some commentators have sought to use recent events to question Police Scotland’s performance. However, the evidence on that performance is clear. The latest national statistics show that recorded crime is at a 43-year low and that public confidence in the police remains strong. All local areas have experienced a significant reduction in the overall level of recorded crime over the longer term. The number of non-sexual violent crimes recorded fell by 49 per cent between 2006-07 and 2016-17, and it remains at one of its lowest levels since 1974. The number of homicide cases has also fallen by 47 per cent in the past 10 years. Looking forward, the SPA and Police Scotland have a clear strategy for the next 10 years following the publication of “Policing 2026” earlier this year. That will ensure that Scotland continues to benefit from a modern, responsive and sustainable police service.

Moving on to governance, I welcome the appointment of Susan Deacon as the new chair of the SPA. Susan takes up the post on 4 December and brings extensive experience of high-profile roles in the public and private sectors. She will bring a new approach to the governance of policing. With decades of experience of leading changes in public, private and academic organisations, and having served the democratic interests of communities for years as both a member of the Scottish Parliament and a minister, she has a track record of bringing together people and ideas in ways that lead to lasting improvement and change. As she turns the focus of the SPA outwards, she intends to strengthen partnerships with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and others, involving them in improvement and change.

I also welcome the appointment of Kenneth Hogg as the interim chief officer of the SPA. His background in public service reform, financial accountability and leadership will stand the SPA in good stead.

Those appointments sit alongside the significant improvements in SPA governance that have been made this year and the review that I commissioned of the authority’s executive functions. All those things will support the board to perform its role effectively.

I commend police officers and staff for the tireless job that they do every day to keep Scotland safe. I will now set out what the Scottish Government is doing to support policing.

Yesterday, Andrea MacDonald of the Scottish Police Federation reinforced the fact that

“front line officers are still out there, they have been out there all weekend still doing their job, still going to the calls from the public and out there patrolling to prevent crime”.

Since Friday, I have met the SPA, the deputy chief constable designate, other senior officers in the command team and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland. The recurring theme in all those conversations was one of strength and continuity in Scottish policing. Earlier today, Derek Penman said:

“I agree with the view of the Scottish Police Federation that there is no crisis in policing … Our ongoing scrutiny of Police Scotland has consistently shown that police officers and police staff at all levels remain committed to delivering policing to our communities”.

As well as the usual local policing activity that we see every day in our communities, the next few days will see the launch of the drink-driving campaign, and there is a very visible police presence at our winter festivals. This morning, at the Police Scotland violence prevention conference, officers from across the country came together to focus on working collaboratively to reduce crime in Scotland. In short, operational policing continues and the public can have confidence in the police service.

To support that important work, this Government is committed to supporting policing, promising to protect the police resource budget in real terms in every year of this parliamentary session—a boost of £100 million by 2021. This year, I also committed a further £61 million for reform.

We have lobbied the UK Government on VAT for the past five years. The chancellor’s announcement that Police Scotland will be eligible to reclaim VAT from 1 April 2018 is welcome and long overdue. The benefits of that will flow directly to policing, as VAT will be reclaimed directly from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The creation of a single service has improved the ability of our police to respond quickly and effectively to serious crime, terrorism and other major incidents uninhibited by the previous forces’ boundaries. It has delivered a scale of operational flexibility and specialism that was not possible under the legacy arrangements, and it continues to deliver an excellent local service to communities that is the match of policing anywhere in the world.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. I welcome Deputy Chief Constable Designate Iain Livingstone’s appointment of temporary Assistant Chief Constables MacDonald and Speirs. I am sure that I speak for the whole chamber in offering continued support to the deputy chief constable designate, who is working hard to provide stability during what he describes as difficult days.

Despite the tireless work of officers and staff on the front line, which I applaud, the public fears that the police service is in a critical state. The cabinet secretary refuses to admit that. Even today, he spins the plugging of gaps at the top as strengthening the senior team. He says that the force is acting quickly, but when will Police Scotland’s leadership return to normal, with no people in executive posts on leave and no such posts temporarily filled? Has the cabinet secretary sought specific reassurances that no major investigations have been adversely affected by the present turmoil? Given the circumstances, will he now abandon his ill-thought-out, unwanted and unnecessary merger of the British Transport Police and Police Scotland?

Michael Matheson

Liam Kerr started off by welcoming the two temporary ACC appointments that Deputy Chief Constable Designate Iain Livingstone made yesterday, yet he questions whether that strengthens the leadership team in Police Scotland. If he knew either of the individuals concerned, he would know that they are very capable police officers, who have gone through the process and have extensive experience of discharging the responsibilities that are involved in being an ACC. I hope that he will reflect on the fact that Iain Livingstone made those appointments on the basis of the skill sets of the two officers concerned. I do not think that it reflects well on Liam Kerr to question further the command structure in Police Scotland and the individuals who have been appointed to it.

As regards the issue of when Police Scotland’s leadership will return to normal, I have stated in recent days that the executive team in Police Scotland faces a challenging set of circumstances. No one would wish to be in the situation that it is in, with an officer suspended and a chief constable on extended leave. However, as Liam Kerr will recognise, all the incidents in question are being investigated. We must wait for that process to be completed. It is wholly inappropriate to seek to undermine the process that is under way by suggesting that it can simply be brushed aside.

As I am sure that Liam Kerr recognises, there are many dedicated and highly experienced officers in Police Scotland who are always able to support the organisation in particular investigations as and when that is necessary. That will continue to be the case, and I have every confidence that Iain Livingstone and his command team will continue to make use of those officers in addressing the current situation.

I understand that Liam Kerr opposes the idea of the integration of the BTP into Police Scotland, despite his party’s commitment to abolish the BTP altogether. As with any other Government policy, I keep such matters under regular review. The joint programme board that is overseeing the integration process is made up of experts. If they highlight concerns or issues to me, I will duly take those matters into consideration. That has always been the case; it was the case before Friday of last week, and it will continue to be the case.

Now is the time to get behind the men and women in our police service, who protect our communities day in and day out. It is not the time to question the suitability of people who have been appointed to key posts to support the command structure.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing an advance copy of his statement.

Nobody is questioning the fact that our dedicated police officers and support staff work every day to keep our communities safe, but there is no denying that this has been a bad year for leadership and governance at Police Scotland and the SPA—one that has been full of suspensions, resignations and early exits.

Given the events of the past few days, the cabinet secretary’s statement looks complacent. He must take responsibility for what happens on his watch, and there are legitimate concerns. Many people wonder why the chief constable has been granted special leave, while other officers who have dedicated their whole careers to policing in Scotland have received suspensions.

The chief constable has now been absent for almost three months. What guarantees can the cabinet secretary give that the PIRC, who is in the unprecedented position of investigating several senior officers, has the capacity to resolve matters, so that we can get Police Scotland to a more stable situation?

Michael Matheson

The member raises an important issue about the capacity of the PIRC to deal with a number of different investigations, including the investigation into the complaints that have been made against the chief constable. As she will be aware, we have increased the PIRC’s resource base to assist with the undertaking of the detailed investigations that are required.

The PIRC not only undertakes investigations in relation to complaints that are received directly but is also directed by the Crown Office when it conducts crime-based investigations; in that sense, it will operate almost as the police force for the Crown Office in investigating such complaints. I recognise the challenges and the demands that are placed on the PIRC in looking at such matters. We are presently considering the existing resources that are available to the PIRC. It is in everybody’s interests for such complaints and investigations to be completed as quickly as possible.

In relation to the member’s comment that she believes that my statement reflects a form of complacency, I say to her that take my responsibilities as Cabinet Secretary for Justice very seriously. Today, I set out a range of measures that are being put in place by Police Scotland and the SPA to make sure that we address the issues as effectively as we can. We are also making sure that we make additional investment available to Police Scotland. I will continue to make sure that we do everything that we can to support the men and women who keep our communities safe, day in and day out. The member may choose to sit on the sidelines, carping and making political comments, but I will get on with the day job of supporting our police force in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Time for business this afternoon is extremely tight and there is no spare time at all, so can I have short questions—and shorter answers, please, cabinet secretary?

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the great strength of Police Scotland—and of its predecessors—is its ability to operate as a team within a framework of laws and to grow new senior officers, and to do so without hands-on interference from politicians?

Michael Matheson

In recent years, I have met a range of officers from right across the organisation, from local policing to specialist units. It has been very clear to me that one of the real benefits of having a national force is the ability to deploy specialist support as and when it is necessary and to utilise all the skill sets that are based in the organisation, at appropriate times, to address particular investigations as and when they occur. I believe that Police Scotland has a very rich seam of leadership in the organisation, as Deputy Chief Constable Designate Iain Livingstone also suggested recently, when he said that he believed that Police Scotland has strong leadership from the top right through to local policing. I believe that that is the case, and that we should all look to support that.

Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary asserts that, in the creation of the single force, the governance, accountability and scrutiny arrangements for policing in Scotland were strengthened. However, concerns over the lack of checks and balances expressed at the time persist. I therefore ask him again whether he will now confirm that the Scottish Government will revisit the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 specifically to look at the methods of holding Police Scotland and the SPA to account. Will he confirm exactly what he does, as cabinet secretary, to ensure that accountability and transparency are evident in practice and not just in theory?

Michael Matheson

I remember being asked that question a few weeks ago. The answer is the same: we have no plans to revisit the 2012 act at the present moment.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the Scottish Police Federation, which has said that

“there is a lot of media speculation and hype and perhaps some political people getting involved in this, but there is no crisis. It is business as usual”?

Michael Matheson

It is important that there is robust, effective scrutiny of our police service and that we have an independent complaints process that allows complaints to be investigated appropriately, as and when they are made. That is what we have in the PIRC. Of course, when complaints relate to criminal matters, it is also important that investigations are directed by the Crown Office. I recognise the concerns that have been raised by the SPF around the speculation relating to those complaints. However, we need now to make sure that due process and the natural justice that is due when with such complaints are dealt with are allowed to take their course. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that we reflect on that before commenting on the nature of some of the complaints.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

With officers at the top of Police Scotland having been suspended or placed on restricted duties and the chief constable having been placed on special leave, can the Cabinet Secretary for Justice explain what impact the disarray in the command structure will have on the merger with the BTP, with questions having already been asked about the financing of the merger?

Michael Matheson

If Mary Fee took the opportunity to engage with the command structure in Police Scotland, she would be reassured that there is no disarray. The actions that the deputy chief constable designate has taken over the past 24 hours, having reviewed his command structure over the weekend and having decided to temporarily appoint two assistant chief constables, were taken to support and strengthen the command structure as it stands. He has also set out the slight difference that he is creating for those two roles in order to strengthen aspects of what he believes are areas that could be improved in the overall command structure.

On the BTP—and I recognise Mary Fee’s opposition to its integration into Police Scotland—I say to her exactly the same thing that I said to Liam Kerr: I keep all areas of policy under constant review. The Scottish Government, the SPA, Police Scotland and others, including the United Kingdom Government, are on the joint programme board. If issues of concern are raised about the integration and how it is being taken forward, I will give them due consideration. It is in no one’s interests to compromise the operational aspects of how policing is delivered post the integration of those services. That has always been the case, and it will continue to be the case. I reassure Mary Fee that, despite our different views on the matter, I constantly consider those issues and if concerns and issues are raised with me I will consider them seriously.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the early sight of his statement and particularly for mentioning the outstanding Scottish police service results last week in the face of all the on-going events. That shows the dedication of the officers—both women and men.

A shadow is being cast by two individuals—two lame ducks: the chair of the Scottish Police Authority, Andrew Flanagan, who is going, and his mate Phil Gormley, who, in my opinion, should be suspended and should go. However, we must look to the future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Will you come to your question, please, Mr Finnie?

John Finnie

Yes, indeed.

It is important to ensure that there is proportionality and equality in decision making about suspensions between the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland. What will the cabinet secretary do to ensure that that happens?

Michael Matheson

We have to recognise that due process is being gone through for the complaints that are being considered—I mentioned the need to reflect on aspects relating to confidentiality.

I have always taken the view that we should never accept that we are at a point at which we cannot make further improvements. As is the case with any process in any area of public policy, we should always reflect on whether there are ways in which the system could be made to work better and improved in some way. There is no doubt that we should always do that with complaints, conduct issues, other aspects of policing in general and how policing deals with and responds to local incidents. We should always reflect on how we can improve our responses.

I have no doubt that how complaints are handled in the future will be given due consideration, but we have to recognise that due process is being gone through with the existing complaints and ensure that we protect the integrity of that process for the purpose of the investigations and the parties who have had complaints lodged against them so that they are given natural justice in how the matters are taken forward.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with the UK Government regarding the repayment of the £140 million in VAT that has been taken out of the pockets of our emergency services over the past few years?

Michael Matheson

I welcome the chancellor’s decision last week to change the VAT rules after our sustained pressure, although the UK Government eventually conceded that it could always have changed the VAT rules. That money from reclaiming VAT will now go directly back into the police service and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. The outstanding £140 million will be £175 million by the end of this parliamentary year. We believe that the Treasury is treating that almost as a windfall, but it is a windfall out of the pockets of our emergency services, and that money would be better invested in our emergency services in Scotland.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Does the justice secretary agree with Kenny MacAskill that today’s problems in Police Scotland are someone else’s fault, and with Scottish National Party back benchers, who think that there is nothing to see here?

Is it not the case that all this can be traced right back to the decision to rush through centralisation, create a toothless police authority, break local community links and appoint the first chief constable to undermine traditional Scottish policing? Does the justice secretary accept responsibility for any of that?

Michael Matheson

I recognise that there have been significant challenges since the creation of Police Scotland. In a number of areas, the organisation has not performed as well as we would have wanted it to do, when we consider that it was a major part of public sector reform.

For example, there were clearly issues to do with the way in which the service took forward call handling, which the service now recognises and acknowledges. I commissioned work, through Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland, to review how the service was conducting call handling—an issue that the member pursued on a number of occasions—which identified areas in which action could have been taken. That work has led to improvements. The 30 recommendations in the report that HMICS published at the beginning of the year demonstrated the improvements and progress that Police Scotland is making in the area.

I also think that the way in which we took forward the integration of the eight forces resulted in aspects of local policing not being given the priority that they should have been given. I have taken forward work with the SPA to ensure that there is a much clearer focus on the need for local policing in the context of how policing is delivered in Scotland. Localism is at the heart of the new national policing priorities that we published. The policing 2026 strategy sets out the need to reflect on how policing is delivered locally, to meet local need.

I fully accept the points that Willie Rennie made. There have been challenges and issues as we have taken forward the integration of our police service. However, there have also been benefits for the operational ability of the organisation, for example in relation to its ability to respond to major incidents and support local policing by providing national support.

Is there more to do? There absolutely is. I assure the member that the incoming chair of the SPA, Iain Livingstone while he leads Police Scotland, and I are committed to doing everything possible to drive the organisation forward, address issues and ensure that policing in our local communities reflects the needs of those communities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Ben Macpherson. Please be very brief.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary please reassure constituents about the calibre of Police Scotland’s performance, and can he reassure them that day-to-day policing will not be affected by the investigations into senior officers?

Michael Matheson

In my statement, I set out how the recent performance data demonstrate the significant progress that Police Scotland continues to make in improving how it tackles, reduces and prevents crime in our communities. The comments of the Scottish Police Federation and others, including Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, Derek Penman, provide clear assurances that operational policing continues to be delivered to an extremely good standard.

This morning, I was at the Police Scotland and Scottish Government violence prevention conference in Glasgow, where operational police officers from across the country shared good practice on how we can more effectively tackle violence in our communities, particularly our more deprived communities, which continue to suffer disproportionately. Operational policing of that nature will continue, and, as Iain Livingstone said at the SPA board meeting yesterday, the public can be assured that that will continue to be the priority as the organisation moves forward in the weeks and months ahead.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Maurice Corry to ask the final question—please be quick.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

We understand that some of the allegations are about the illegal use of firearms. Will the cabinet secretary say what measures are in place to ensure that firearms are available only for use by authorised officers? What further measures are being considered in light of the scandal?

Michael Matheson

The member will be aware that there is a live criminal investigation into matters. It would not be appropriate for me to get into the details of investigations that are being directed by the Crown. No doubt, once the investigation has been completed and we know its outcome, we will be able to identify the reasons why the issue came about in the first place and the measures that need to be put in place to prevent such things from occurring in future—if indeed they happened; at this point we are talking about allegations.

I assure the member that when the investigations are completed, if there are lessons that need to be learned and actions that need to be taken, that will happen.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the statement on policing. Ms McAlpine, I apologise for not being able to call you.