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Police and fire reforms brought consistency despite failures, MSPs say

25 March 2019

Reforms that led to the unified police and fire services in Scotland have led to greater consistency of service across the country, despite serious problems created along the way, according to a Holyrood committee.

Post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 – one of the biggest transformations of a public service since devolution – following the fifth anniversary of the new services has concluded that, despite challenges, the police service reform has particularly benefitted victims of crimes such as domestic or sexual abuse.

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, the MSPs state.

Unification has also resulted in more equal access to specialist capabilities and support across both Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service. This has helped in areas such as more complex serious crime and extreme events.

The committee found that while the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service has achieved higher than expected savings and demonstrated good governance arrangements, a range of factors led to a more difficult transition for police services.

Issues identified include: 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. The need for an exemption for police and fire services from the payment of VAT was an issue raised at stage 3 consideration of the bill, and this remains an issue of debate, including £175m which was paid to the Treasury.

Reporting separately on the two services, the committee concludes that, despite an improving picture, further changes should be made to areas including:

  • The police complaints processes should be overhauled, to create a more equitable, clear and fair system.
  • The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) should take a more proactive role in its oversight and scrutiny of new Police Scotland policies.
  • Suggested options to include the Scottish Parliament in the appointment process of the SPA chair should be explored.
  • The SPA and Police Scotland should demonstrate that recent improvements in their leadership and governance mean that previous shortcomings caused by personality issues could not reoccur.
  • Police financial projections for the future should be more robust, taking into account known challenges.
  • There should be a rethink of the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service’s "retained duty service", which is no longer fit for purpose. This should consider pay, training and responsibilities of "duty" firefighters.

Committee convener Margaret Mitchell MSP commented: "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 systematic 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."

Click here to access the committee's reports.