A number of improvements must be made in order to address “systemic problems” created following reform of Scotland’s police and fire services, according to a committee of MSPs.
On Monday, Holyrood’s Justice Committee published its conclusions following a review into the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 – one of the biggest transformations of a public service since devolution.
In Scotland, the police and fire services had each consisted of eight regional organisations prior to the Act being introduced.
When the Act came into effect in 2013, these organisations were merged to instead create two national bodies – Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
In April last year, the Justice Committee began an inquiry into the centralisation of the two services in order to examine how effective the change has been.
In its conclusions, the committee said that although reform had led to greater consistency of service across Scotland, as well as allowing for more equal access to specialist capabilities and support, a number of issues, particularly within Police Scotland, should be further addressed.
The committee’s report on policing indicated that poor financial management, unclear lines of responsibility and a failure to focus on the views of officers and staff in the early stages of reform lie at the root of many of the problems faced by Police Scotland.
Among the issues highlighted were forecast savings not being realised, IT problems hampering police effectiveness and a string of well-publicised personnel problems resulting in senior management “instability and concerns over a lack of clear leadership” in the initial years of the reform process.
A need for an exemption for police and fire services from the payment of VAT was also highlighted in the committee’s considerations.
The report set out a range of recommendations for improving Police Scotland, including; an overhaul of police complaints processes to create a more “equitable, clear and fair system”, a more proactive role by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) in its oversight and scrutiny of new Police Scotland policies and to provide more robust financial projections.
The committee also suggested that the option of including the Scottish Parliament in the appointment process of the SPA chair should be explored, as well as stating that SPA and Police Scotland should demonstrate that recent improvements in leadership and governance would mean that previous “shortcomings caused by personality issues” could not reoccur.
Justice Committee convener, Margaret Mitchell MSP, said: “Our police and fire services do a vital job keeping people in Scotland safe. It is imperative that the structures and regulations underpinning these organisations work well.
“The Justice Committee has found that some of the problems it has seen can be traced back to the frameworks and relationships created by the Act itself.
“These are not simply ‘teething problems’ of a new service bedding in, but systemic problems that must be addressed.
“The Committee has identified a raft of necessary improvements to regulations, structures and practices. Members look forward to working closely with the Scottish Government and the organisations created by the Police and Fire Reform Act to implement changes.
“Reform of these frontline public services is one of the biggest challenges undertaken since the start of devolution in Scotland. It is in everyone’s interest that they succeed.”
Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf said: “The people of Scotland are well-served by officers and staff in Scotland’s police and fire services who are working alongside communities and a range of partners to make Scotland’s streets and homes safer.
“I am very grateful to the Justice Committee for its work on scrutiny of the 2012 Act which was the largest exercise in public service reform since devolution.
“It has rightly recognised some significant achievements, including the creation of national capabilities in policing, described as ‘a success story for Scotland’ and improvements in how Police Scotland deals with sexual offences.
“This has been delivered alongside the Scottish Government’s commitment to protect Police Scotland’s revenue budget during this parliament to deliver a total boost of £100 million by 2021 and the announcement of a 6.5% pay deal for officers.
“The report also makes a number of recommendations which ministers plan to consider in full, alongside Police Scotland, SPA and SFRS over the coming months.
“The report recognises that Dame Elish Angiolini is leading a review into complaints and conduct in policing. It is right and proper that the review be allowed to conclude and its findings be published before considering the next steps.”
Susan Deacon, of the Scottish Police Authority, said: “It is clear that the creation of a single police service for Scotland has delivered significant benefits.
“I am pleased that the committee has acknowledged the improvements which have been made in the leadership and governance of both Police Scotland and the SPA since the early days of police reform.
“The SPA remains firmly committed to driving further improvement and change so that people across Scotland continue to have a strong and effective police service in which they can have confidence and trust.”
Dr Kirsty Darwent, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We welcome this report which highlights how we have successfully worked through major transition over the last five years whilst ensuring the ongoing safety of our communities and firefighters.
“We continue to work closely with our partners, representative bodies and stakeholders as we move forward to deliver a national service locally.
“There is of course further work to be done and we would welcome discussions on the structure of UK-wide terms and conditions for Retained Duty System firefighters so that their pay more accurately reflects their availability.
“We otherwise continue to invest heavily in our RDS firefighters. This includes the recent introduction of 40 bespoke appliances, forming part of a £7.6 million investment, the addition of a number of full time management posts in rural areas and also new wet weather kit, at a cost of £1.3 million.
“This ongoing effort sits within our wider transformation journey – equipping firefighters to respond safely and effectively to new and emerging risks such as severe weather related flooding.”
Police Scotland Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said the single force has transformed the way it investigates rape and other sexual crimes.
He said it had improved its approach to investigating murders and unexplained deaths, and become better at dealing with national threats, while the merger had allowed the consolidation of support services rather than cutting local, frontline officers.
Mr Livingstone said: “I am in no doubt that Scotland is safer now than it would have been had we not gone through the process to become a single national service.
“As I have been clear on many occasions, we did not always get everything right and we have work to do.
“In the early years of Police Scotland we were not as engaged as we could have been with our officers, support staff, communities and elected members.
“We decided what was needed and we needed to implement it quickly.
“Now that we have established that framework of common standards, my priority is to allow much greater autonomy at local level, within that framework.”
He said Police Scotland is a “learning organisation” and the force will consider what any recommendations mean for it and how it can do better.