Plans to transfer complaints about the Police to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman are “the wrong decision, taken at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons”, says the current Police Complaints Commissioner, Professor John McNeill in a Press Release issued today.
“the wrong decision, taken at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons”
The man in charge of looking into complaints about the police in Scotland has attacked plans to transfer his role to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) calling them “regressive” and potentially “damaging to public confidence in the police”.
Speaking following the publication of his response to the consultation, Professor John McNeill said: “The police enjoy very significant powers to intervene in our lives, the public’s consent and trust in them hinges on the robustness of the oversight applied to their actions. Any perceived scaling back of that oversight would be a regressive step that could erode trust and undermine public confidence in the police.
“Doing away with a dedicated police complaints oversight body and moving its functions to a general complaints oversight body will go against the powerful trend in police oversight elsewhere in Europe and many other progressive jurisdictions.”
This is a view echoed by Professor Maurice Punch, Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, who said: “Policing is about some of the most fundamental principles of how the state treats its citizens. What society needs and everyone wants is policing that is accountable and based on integrity. One of the essential pillars in ensuring that, is external accountability through a specialised oversight agency geared to the unique nature of policing.”
Professor McNeill goes on to condemn the timing of the current proposal, saying that even a decision in principle by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to proceed would be wrong, ahead of the planned consultation on fire and police reform which is due to start in February
Professor McNeill again: “Any consultation on the number of police forces in Scotland has to consider the issue of accountability and governance. It seems obvious to me that any move to reduce the number of forces increases, rather than reduces, the need for a transparency through a dedicated, independent oversight body.
“The poor timing of this proposal raises the very real possibility that we could find ourselves dismantling an organisation that everyone, including the Cabinet Secretary, admits is doing a good job and then having to create an identical one at some point in the future to address the issue of public confidence in the system for overseeing police complaints.”
The Commissioner also questions whether any transfer would result in the simplification of the police complaints process, an argument originally put forward in the Sinclair Report of 2008 and repeated by the Cabinet Secretary in a letter to the Commissioner last month. This is simply not the case, argues McNeill, who says that the SPSO’s jurisdiction over his office is limited to alleged “maladministration” (by him or his staff) and does not extend to questioning the merits of his decisions in his complaint reviews.
“It appears that both Sinclair and the Government believe that if someone is dissatisfied by my findings that they can then ask for a review by the SPSO and by subsuming my role into the SPSO, they simplify the complaints landscape. However, in the absence of maladministration the SPSO has no locus and the only option for someone who does not accept my findings is judicial review.” he said.
The Cabinet Secretary has been unable to provide the Commissioner with any information on the anticipated costs or any savings that will result from the move, saying only that these matters will be “considered in light of the views expressed during the consultation process”. The Commissioner challenges this in his response arguing that this issue ought to have been considered by Scottish Ministers before proposing the transfer.
He said: “As matters stand, the cost of any transfer and in particular whether it is likely to place a greater or lesser burden on the tax payer remains wholly unclear.”
What is clear however is that, even if a decision to transfer the functions of the Commissioner is announced soon, there is unlikely to be sufficient Parliamentary time available to discuss fully the financial and practical implications before the next election. Already one MSP, Richard Baker the Labour Justice spokesman, has raised the issue of the future of the PCCS in the Scottish Parliament and others are expected to follow.