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31 July 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 3:07pm

Was the SNP’s creation of a single police force across Scotland a mistake?

Each new crisis casts fresh doubt on the wisdom of the decision to set up a unitary force in the first place.

By Chris Deerin

To lose one chief constable is unfortunate; to lose two in two years would, to put it gently, hint at issues with the recruitment process. Or perhaps the entire system. Since it was created in 2013, Police Scotland – the country’s single unified police force – has lurched from one calamity to the next.

Sir Stephen House, a former deputy assistant commissioner of the Met and chief constable of Strathclyde Police, was appointed as the unitary force’s inaugural chief but lasted just a couple of tortuous years. He finally stepped down following the death in hospital of a woman who, despite calls from the public, spent three days severely injured in her boyfriend’s car after a crash before being discovered by emergency services.

Now House’s replacement is in trouble. Phil Gormley, a former deputy director of the National Crime Agency who took up the role in January last year, is the subject of an investigation into bullying allegations made by a senior colleague.

The inquiry is the last thing the force and the SNP administration at Holyrood needs. Not only was the advent of Police Scotland the Nationalists’ flagship justice policy, it is arguably the single most radical public sector reform of their 10 years in office. The force’s persistent inability to clear its feet, along with its reputation for incompetence and arrogance, has dogged the government and raised lingering questions about ministerial judgment.

The unitary force was the brainchild of former first minister Alex Salmond and ex-justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, and involved the merger of eight long-established regional forces. It was controversial from the beginning, seen as an attempt to enforce swingeing budget cuts, remove local accountability, and centralise control over the police with Mr Salmond in Edinburgh.

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From the start, House faced complaints about his robust management style. He clashed regularly with the civilian leadership of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), set up to hold the new force to account. His record on civil liberties was patchy, to say the least. A decision to allow officers on routine street patrols and callouts to be armed, which was taken without full consultation, had to be amended in the face of a political outcry; a Scotland-wide policy to stop and search tens of thousands of people without suspicion of a crime, including children, was similarly overturned. The force was also found to have unlawfully spied on contacts between officers and journalists.

Insiders say some of these contentious practices were already in place before the creation of Police Scotland, but were restricted to certain regions – for example, Strathclyde, which contained the city of Glasgow, made heavy use of stop and search. However, the gathering of power in the hands of a single chief constable saw some of them rolled out as standard across the nation. This made it easier for journalists and campaigners to spot and investigate potential misjudgements or wrongdoing. “It basically put a target on the police force’s back,” says one investigative hack.

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Meanwhile, the rank and file remain unhappy about budget cuts. Although the lion’s share of the burden has fallen on civilian jobs, thousands of which have gone, this has only left officers having to backfill bureaucratic tasks rather than focus on frontline policing. “Morale is really bad,” says an insider. To make matters worse, the chairman of the SPA – which is anyway regarded as a toothless pawn of ministers – is standing down after facing criticism from a former colleague and MSPs on two Holyrood committees.

Gormley was brought in to steady the ship following House’s turbulent reign. It doesn’t seem to be working out that way. There have been calls for his suspension while the investigation into bullying allegations is carried out, but these have been rejected by the SPA. The chief constable insists he will “remain focused on leading Police Scotland, ensuring that we continue to serve and protect the people of this country”. Nevertheless, his authority will inevitably be undermined until and unless he is cleared. And if the charges are found to have substance, it could cost him his job.

There’s little prospect of Police Scotland being disbanded, despite the ongoing strife – the Nats have invested too much political capital and public money in the project. But each new crisis casts fresh doubt on the wisdom of the decision to set it up in the first place. And the problem with centralised power is that, when things go wrong, there’s no one else to blame. Nicola Sturgeon has to get a grip, and quickly.