Friday, August 31, 2007

Welcome reforms to Police Chief appointments or a bridge too far for the Scottish Executive ?

Following on from earlier this week when it was alleged the Scottish Executive may face legal action over claimed interference in the appointments process of Police Chiefs by local Police boards, the Scotsman today is running a further article on the issue.

Do anonymous, unaccountable Police Boards, which seem to lack transparency from time to time, serve the process well by making appointments of Police Chiefs ? or is this yet another antiquated area of regulation & appointment in Scotland needing reform ?

The Scotsman reports :

Don't ring alarm bells over future of blue-light services


THE current stramash between Kenny MacAskill, the energetic justice secretary, and Scotland's eight police boards over the power to appoint chief constables is being closely watched by everyone with an interest in governance.

This is the first battle between the new SNP Scottish Executive and the equally fresh-faced coalition councils that constitute the eight regional joint boards. But will it set a political precedent?

Is this particular power struggle evidence of the inevitable tug o' war between our new, self-confident Scottish government and the fast-developing coalition councils? Or is it just an isolated incident?

On the surface, there is no apparent reason for this street fight, as the number of separate police forces is simply unsustainable, both in economic and operational terms. As in all other parts of the public sector, increasingly sophisticated and expensive technology, along with a more co-ordinated approach to crimefighting and management, are driving operations into bigger, centralised units.

Unlike in the National Health Service, where ministers are trying to resist these same centripetal economic forces, currently threatening the future of district general hospitals, there are certain political attractions to the establishment, and naming, of a "Scottish Police Service".

Indeed, all three of the main blue-light services in Scotland - police, fire and ambulance - are odds-on bets for reform. In an era of impending budget restraint and with a new government keen to show it can develop post-devolution Scotland into a country capable of independence, the Scottish Ambulance Service, the Scottish fire service and the Scottish police service can expect to be moved centre-stage.

The economic attractiveness of the efficiency savings to ministers from merging all these unnecessary and costly bureaucracies, not to mention the symbolism of establishing the Scottish services, will far outweigh any little, local difficulties.

First up is, surely, the Scottish Ambulance Service, where the case for stand-alone stations, remote from either fire or police stations, is surely post-mortem. A review of the landholdings that currently house our ambulances - and the paramedics and technicians that use them, the clerical staff that support them, and the cleaners and the caterers that service them - is surely sitting in the waiting room of the minister's next surgery.

Such a review will release a large number of very valuable development sites, bringing a much-needed injection of capital - critically, not private finance.

This could then fund modern facilities that are integrated with police and/or fire, unlike the separate new fire and police stations built in some parts of the country.

A single integrated emergency services hub, to include a joint staff canteen and an integrated office, amid other common facilities in a modern, energy-efficient building would then be possible in all our towns, if not in smaller villages.

In the Scottish fire service, the current situation is alarming, with eight separate fire brigades with separate headquarters, teams of support staff and eight paid political posts overseeing them.

Compare that wasteful duplication with the singularly more efficient London Fire Brigade that serves a much larger population than that of Scotland.

Policing has already taken the first few steps down the rationalisation road, with much of the groundwork already done by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition - for example, the recent establishment of the Scottish Police Services Authority, taking responsibility for the big, expensive centralised services such as forensics, the serious crime squad and the country's only police helicopter.

The counterbalance to this centralisation has been the moves to devolve operational responsibility to what the police call "command level" - in most cases organisational units that are conveniently co-terminus with the local council boundaries.

Many chief constables agree that moves such as this, allied to the centralisation of the larger tasks as mentioned above, makes the case for fewer of them, with three or perhaps four forces being the optimum number for a country of our size.

So the logical next step at the national level is a review of the number of chief constables, their police boards and their headquarters buildings.

With all the political parties in Scotland now willing to discuss the range of powers of the Scottish Parliament, it therefore follows that there needs to be a review of the regional and local tiers of government.

The anonymous police boards, appointed by constituent councils, not elected, are surely first in the firing line.

So this fabricated argument over the appointment of chief constables is entirely unnecessary. In reality, it symbolises a more deep-rooted political objective - to set the tone for a realignment of power between an increasingly strident Scottish government looking to ensure maximum efficiency of the huge public sector spend, and the coalition councils, seeking to establish their role in service delivery and design.

The new SNP administration need not fear upsetting too many of its own local infantry, even though it has seen a huge swelling of its councillor core. The party's manifesto, upon which all SNP councillors and MSPs were elected, commits the new government to this "push and pull" reform of policing.

As convener of the Lothian and Borders Police Board, serving our capital city region - and with very little interest from colleagues in partner, constituent councils - I was, with the chief constable, trusted to appoint the deputy chief constable and his three assistant chief constables.

Equally surprising, the candidates for the post of Northern Constabulary's chief constable had to endure an interview panel consisting of the entire 32-member police board.

Other boards used a range of different procedures in between these two extremes. Clearly, this postcode lottery for police chief appointments required reform, and still does.

As is now the case with the national conversation and its constitutional question, it is not a case of whether to reform the appointments procedure for chief constables, its a question of who gets to pull rank over whom.

The battle lines have been drawn. Stand back. As the SNP clearly stated in their manifesto, "It's time".

• Ross Martin is policy director of the Centre for Scottish Public Policy.

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